AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dozens of current and former AISD special education employees packed the halls at Monday’s school board meeting to express frustrations with their department.
Speech-language pathologists wore blue shirts at the meeting while special education evaluation services employees wore red “Education Austin” shirts.
Monday, the board of trustees took action to address the staffing problems in the special education department, voting to approve additional compensation for some employees there. AISD said this increase will offer a market adjustment to the pay of Special Education employees who did not receive a market adjustment in previous budgets. The district says this recently-approved round of market adjustments to employees salaries will cost $275,000 in total.
This comes about three weeks after AISD acknowledged a “critical shortage” of staff in its Special Education Department.
The district said back in early February that over the past school year 29 members of their special education department have left their jobs. AISD said the entire department has more than 2,000 employees.
The district emphasized that special education staffing challenges are happening across Texas and across the country, but AISD employee union Education Austin said it believes that AISD has driven out employees who wanted to stay with the district.
Three weeks ago AISD announced pay adjustments would be coming for certain special education staff to help address this shortage.
Frustrations from employees
Ken Zarifis, the president of Education Austin, said in his eyes, any time the district puts additional money toward employees, its a good thing. But he doesn’t believe the additional money will erase the problems Education Austin members have voiced about the Special Education department.
The district could not tell trustees Monday exactly how much of a pay increase these special education employees would receive, but Zarifis estimates a range between $500 to $2,000.
“That’s all good and fine at the beginning of the year, but it doesn’t keep people here,” he said.
“AISD cannot buy off our teachers and employees, they have to respect them, they have to feel part of this district, respected as a professional, that’s how they’ll keep them,” Zarifis continued.
He explained that a group of AISD special education employees who happen to be Education Austin members has not yet been granted a meeting with AISD about their concerns with the department.
Many AISD employees present didn’t want to be identified, fearing retaliation or harm to future job prospects if they did. But several shared with KXAN frustrations about not only a growing workload but also changes in leadership and organization which have stifled their ability to do their jobs. Some fo the AISD employees present worried that the number of special education staff members resigning will impact students’ ability to get special education evaluations on time.
A current AISD Special Education teacher, Sarah Kent, spoke directly to the board about this concern. In particular, she said that vacancies in the Licensed Specialist in School Psychology (LSSP) positions are impacting her campus, leading to overdue evaluations for special education referrals. She believes that this means AISD is not in compliance and is breaking the law, “which is inhibiting educational progress for our students with the greatest needs.”
Kent acknowledged the department has tried to address these empty positions by increasing pay, but she feels there is still a lack of information about how the district plans to complete the overdue evaluations.
“AISD’s failure to identify students with disabilities in a timely manner is a dereliction of duty,” Kent told the trustees. “For a child, every minute of instruction matters. So for AISD students to spend minutes, days and now months in their classrooms without access to appropriate supports and services is unacceptable.”
After hearing Kent’s comments, several board members expressed that they would like to hear more information from the district about whether campuses are performing special education evaluations in the time frame they should be.
Added compensation for Special Education employees
The pay boosts the board approved Monday will go into effect as early as March for “administrative professionals” within the department, including speech pathologists, life skills specialists, mental health specialists, and transition specialists.
Additionally, the district will make an additional $500 stipend available for special education staff who didn’t see an increase at the start of the school year, including audiologists, behavior specialists, mental health specialists, occupational therapists, orientation/mobility instructors, and bilingual speech pathologists.
The vote Monday also approved an agreement to pay $15 per-class period for teachers and teacher assistants who substitute teach during one of their planning periods because a substitute was not available, a practice the district said is only to be used in emergencies.
The district also noted while in the 2019- 20 school year it offered an increased stipend to special education classroom teachers. In order to remain competitive with “local peer districts” AISD is now asking that other special education positions also receive a $500 stipend increase.
Loss of Licensed Specialists in School Psychology
AISD special education employees in a variety of positions make up the group voicing frustration with the department. Licensed Specialists in School Psychology are among the positions which have seen recent resignations.
KXAN found through public records requests returned in December that twelve LSSPs had resigned so far during the current school year. Of those twelve, at least five LSSPs listed “job dissatisfaction” as the reason for their resignation. At the time of that records request, AISD said there were 33.92 LSSP positions in the district.
A former Special Education Services employee with AISD (who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation shared concerns with KXAN about the resignations of LSSPs in the district. This employee resigned because of new departmental leadership but added that staffing problems and lack of departmental communication played a role too.
“To claim we left due to a response to pay or claims that we have never had real leadership before is absurd,” this former employee said.
AISD tells KXAN that it is working with the Texas Association of School Boards on a salary study to determine how to get AISD position salaries aligned with the market. LSSP employees will be one of the types of employees evaluated for a possible market salary adjustment, but the district said that whether an LSSP actually sees a salary adjustment will depend on their experience.