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Divergent News

“Education is a matter of trust” (Clovis Unified District) | Circa June 6, 2009

Note: Found the Clovis Unified Story in my archives from 2009. Problems with Clovis Unified and special education goes back generations. …


“Education is a matter of trust”
(between Parents and Educators)

Published online on Saturday, Jun. 06, 2009

By Tracy Correa / The Fresno Bee

Parents and Clovis Unified School District officials are butting heads over how to teach special-needs children — and their disagreements are resulting in drawn-out, costly legal hearings.

Clovis Unified officials say the hearings are a last resort when parents don’t agree with district plans for educating a special-needs child. Federal law requires free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities.

But some parents say the district is unwilling to bend to meet the needs of their children and too focused on minimizing the cost of additional services. They say the district forces them into hearings as a way to intimidate them and wear them down.

More Valley parents are in legal disputes about special education needs

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CRAIG KOHLRUSS / THE FRESNO BEE
Emmanuel, 12, and Christina Ponce, 6, work on a Smart Board activity at their home in north Fresno. Ana and Raul Ponce Jr. are in a battle with Clovis Unified School District over services for their autistic son, Emmanuel. The district already has racked up $115,000 in legal fees.

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The disagreements usually stem from the district’s individual education plan, a teaching guide that is designed for each child. The plan is based on district assessments that may include other professional opinions. When a parent won’t accept what the district says it can provide, and mediation fails to find common ground, a hearing is the next step.

Records kept by the Office of Administrative Hearings in Sacramento, which assigns administrative law judges to hear special education disputes, show that there were 38 requests for hearings at Clovis Unified since September 2005 — more than double the number filed for Fresno Unified, which is twice the size of the Clovis district. Clovis also had more hearing requests than other Valley school districts.

Kelly Avants, spokeswoman for Clovis Unified, said she’s not surprised by the numbers.

She said the district cannot simply give in to every parent’s request and is legally obligated to seek a hearing if the parties can’t otherwise reach an agreement.

“When we believe that the services we are proposing for a student are appropriate and adequate to meet their educational needs, then we will hold firm on that stance,” she said.

Clovis Unified spends $34 million a year on special education programs, she said — about 6% of its overall budget.

Clovis is more willing to fight than other districts — even when it means racking up more than $100,000 in costs for a case. Other districts may not be as determined to hold the line, she said.

She said the 38 requests for hearings represent 22 Clovis Unified families, some of whom have multiple disputes with the district. Seven of the 22 cases advanced to hearings, nine reached settlements with the district and the others were dismissed or withdrawn.

Avants said hearings are not the path the district prefers to take. “The ideal goal is we can work together,” she said.

That’s not always possible, said parent Ana Bustos-Ponce, who has faced the district in hearings because she refuses to accept educational plans prepared for her two boys, one of whom is autistic. The district filed seven separate requests for hearings against the family; they were later consolidated into three cases.

“There’s no excuse for their [Clovis Unified’s] lack of educational support,” said Bustos-Ponce, a Fresno Unified school teacher.

Most cases involve autism

Parents at odds with the district and lawyers who represent them say Clovis is more likely to initiate hearings against parents, forcing them to miss work and lose wages to attend. For example, one hearing in Clovis lasted 19 days this year.

State records show that Clovis requests hearings more often than other districts its size.

Eleven of the 38 hearing requests — nearly 30% — were filed by the district, a higher percentage than other districts its size in California. Cases involving Clovis Unified students also are likelier to proceed to hearings.

Jeffrey Young, spokesman for the California Department of General Services, which oversees the Office of Administrative Hearings and the 28 judges who hear special-education disputes, said 90% of the disagreements statewide are settled in mediation and avoid a hearing.

A school district doesn’t usually request a hearing unless it has a strong case, he said. Typically, it’s the parents who file requests.

Young called the seven requests for hearings filed by the district against the Bustos-Ponce family “unusual.”

Statewide, most hearings are about services for students with autism, Young said. Those services are often in dispute, he said, because more children are being diagnosed and there are so many experimental treatment options.
Overall, he said, disagreements involving special needs children and schools are complex. “These are very emotional issues because this is your child,” he said.

That’s why a judge often must intervene.

The administrative law judges are charged with deciding if a student is receiving a free appropriate public education.

Hearings in the state typically run four to five days. The recent 19-day hearing in Clovis Unified was abnormally long, but isn’t the longest, Young said.

That hearing was to determine whether Clovis Unified has prepared an appropriate education plan for 12-year-old Michael Gonzalez, who has autism. The final day of the hearing, which was held in a small room at the Clovis Unified district headquarters, didn’t end until 1 a.m.

Michael’s mother, Debbie Gonzalez, said she challenged the district because her son’s learning program focused on soft social skills — like how to make a bed — instead of reading, writing and math.

“They want to give up on academics,” said Gonzalez, who accuses the district of setting low expectations for her son and not wanting to pay for additional services. “I think everyone has a right to free and public education. That’s our right, we pay taxes like everyone else.”

She is now home-schooling Michael and has spent more than $10,000 on tutoring. The family also has spent $3,000 on an evaluation of their son and more than $5,000 on medical experts who testified in his case.

By setting low expectations, Gonzalez said, the district then only has to provide minimal education services — and saves money.

Maureen Graves, an attorney who is representing the Gonzalez family on contingency and has represented two other Clovis special education students, said Clovis doesn’t seem to have high expectations for those students.

Graves, based in Irvine, said Clovis Unified has board-certified behavior analysts on staff who “all feed into each other’s views” about what constitutes an appropriate education plan for students.

Said Graves: “I don’t think this is about money. I think it’s about pride. Arrogance.”

She said the district would be better off “if they took the resources they spent fighting with parents and use them to teach children.”

Educational plans disputed

Another Clovis special education hearing, centered on Bustos-Ponce’s 12-year-old autistic son Emmanuel, wrapped up May 27 after two weeks of proceedings. Bustos-Ponce — who said she no longer can afford a lawyer — represented her child’s case and readily traded objections with the district’s lawyer who questioned her expert witness.

Clovis Unified took action against Bustos-Ponce after she and her husband refused to agree to individual education plans prepared last year for Emmanuel and Israel, 9, who has learning disabilities.

Bustos-Ponce said Clovis Unified’s plans didn’t offer her children enough academic help. She said her boys were provided more individual help when they attended Fresno Unified schools — where she also fought for additional services and ultimately reached a settlement.

She said Clovis wants its in-house staff to work with her children, but she maintains that they aren’t qualified and trained in autism and auditory processing disorder and learning disabilities.

Avants said she can’t discuss the specifics of an individual child’s education plan because of confidentiality laws.

More Valley parents are in legal disputes about special education needs



CRAIG KOHLRUSS / THE FRESNO BEE
Emmanuel, 12, and Christina Ponce, 6, work on a Smart Board activity at their home in north Fresno. Ana and Raul Ponce Jr. are in a battle with Clovis Unified School District over services for their autistic son, Emmanuel. The district already has racked up $115,000 in legal fees.



But she said that Clovis Unified’s staff is highly qualified and meets state and federal government standards. The district’s special education teachers receive extra training and certification “to ensure they meet the needs of their students,” she said.

Bustos-Ponce said that when her boys attended Fresno Unified schools, they received two hours of daily individual tutoring through the Cullinan Education Center, a private agency in Fresno. Now, she said, they are offered only 30 minutes a month of special education consultation services with Clovis Unified. “Clovis Unified’s IEP offer is unacceptable,” she said.

Cullinan, which assists children with learning disabilities, costs about $60 an hour, according to Mabel Franks, a Fresno Unified assistant superintendent who oversees the district’s special education services.

Sue Pellegrino, a director of special education at Fresno Unified, said the district sometimes contracts with Cullinan and other agencies to help special education students, but not routinely. She said it’s usually the result of mediation or settlement agreements with parents. The district also will contract out if it is unable to provide a service but, most services are provided in-house, she said.

Avants said Clovis Unified believes state law prohibits it from contracting with Cullinan, because it is not state-certified for special education.

But Joanne Cullinan, owner of Cullinan, said certification isn’t required for the agency’s services. “Clovis could do exactly what Fresno is doing,” she added.

The dispute has been costly for the family and the district. Bustos-Ponce and her husband have missed work to attend hearings. And Clovis Unified spent $115,000 in legal expenses between August 2008 and March 31 for the hearings over the special education plans for the two boys.

Some parents say many hearings could be avoided if the district would simply do a better job providing for special needs students.

But district officials say they are meeting their legal responsibilities for these students. They say they can’t oblige every parent’s wishes, because they have to consider the educational needs of each of the district’s 37,000 students — as well as the costs of providing those educations.

Clovis Unified’s special-education plans are based on detailed assessments and educational goals set for each of the district’s 2,872 special education students, said Kay Lenheim, special education director for the district.

Lenheim said she understands the frustration of parents when there is a difference of opinion about the capabilities of a child and what services are necessary. But that doesn’t mean the child’s needs aren’t being met.

Lenheim and Avants said that it costs less for Clovis to stand its ground at legal hearings than to yield to parents’ requests, because doing so would set precedents that could be even more expensive.

Avants said extra services sought by parents could easily cost $10,000 to $20,000 a year.

“We have a finite amount of resources,” she said.

But the district seems to have unlimited resources to fight parents who are only trying to ensure that their child receives an appropriate education, Bustos-Ponce said. It’s not fair, she said, “when the district has the taxpayer money to fight us.”

The reporter can be reached at tcorrea@fresnobee.comor (559) 441-6378.


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