AUSTIN (KXAN) — Leaders with Austin Independent School District spoke with members of the media Tuesday regarding staffing shortages they are facing when it comes to staff in their special education roles.

AISD says, over the past school year, 29 members of their Special Education department have left their jobs. For context, the department has more than two-thousand employees.

AISD special education
Dr. Fernando Medina and Dr. Akweta Hickman address the media (Alyssa Goard/KXAN)

Dr. Akweta Hickman, who came to the district in May 2019 as the Executive Director of Special Education, told reporters that AISD “will be implementing pay adjustments for several of the positions that serve the growing numbers of students served by special education to address the critical shortage of special education staffing needs in both Austin and throughout the country. We are also implementing signing bonuses for newly hired special education teachers and special education teacher assistants.”

The adjustments could start as soon as March, according to AISD. The district clarified that these adjustments would specifically go toward Speech-Language Pathologists, Licensed Specialists in School Psychology, and other Administrative Professionals.

The district also plans to create new positions for roles such as therapy assistants to help special education teachers with their workloads

“We believe we need to be more competitive,” said Dr. Fernando Medina, AISD’s Chief of Human Capital. Medina couldn’t say exactly how much of a pay adjustment employees could expect to receive under these changes, explaining that “it’s going to be different for every position.”

Medina acknowledged that some AISD special education staff have spoken publically about their frustration with their current workload

“I don’t want to dismiss the workload, I recognize that the shortage in that personnel is out there and we recognize it does put a pressure on our staff, and we are responding to that, and today is a reflection of that,” he said.

Dr. Hickman said she is meeting individually with speech language pathology staff members and the district says it hasn’t heard of any “current issues of negative instances.”

The district says some of the departures from the Special Education Department were the result of individual family needs and job opportunities elsewhere.

But Ken Zarifis, the president of Education Austin, the union for AISD employees, disagrees. He said that many of the AISD Special Education employees who left wanted to stay with the district.

Zarifis said Education Austin has been asking for change in the conditions for Special Education employees with AISD for years.

“And it’s not just this current leadership, but previous leadership, this is a district problem that goes beyond any individual, and really is about how this district views Special Ed., and it’s irresponsible behavior over the last decade,” he said.

Zarifis said that these new changes from AISD may be a step in the right direction, but he doesn’t believe it will be enough to address the magnitude of the challenge the department faces.