Federal officials ‘concerned’ short staffing prevented Steamboat schools from meeting special needs obligations

District entered voluntary agreement in April that requires a plan to get to adequate staffing levels

Steamboat Springs School District administration building.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Federal education officials are “concerned” the Steamboat Springs School District has not been meeting it’s obligations to special needs students due to paraprofessional staffing shortages that have persisted throughout the school year.

According to documents obtained by the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation in March after Ginger Johnston alleged the district has not been able to meet requirements in her son’s individualized education plan. Her son is a freshman on the autism spectrum.

Before the investigation was complete, the district offered to take voluntary action in response to Johnston’s complaint.

On April 12, Superintendent Brad Meeks signed a resolution agreement that requires the district to outline how it plans to return to adequate staffing levels for students with disabilities, among other steps.

“We feel comfortable that day in and day out we were meeting the IEPs,” Meeks said. “It’s about helping the students in the end. Even though we felt that the IEPs were being met, obviously there was disagreement there, and so let’s sit down, convene the IEP team and find out what areas the team feels the student needs more assistance and we’ll work to provide it.”

The agreement is not an admission of any wrongdoing by the district and does not make a determination about whether IEPs were met. The investigation was stopped when the agreement went in place.

Still, in a letter to Johnston outlining the case, Jason Langberg, the team leader on the case, said the number of staff compared to what was required was cause for concern.

“(The Office of Civil Rights) is concerned about whether the district was able to provide a (free, appropriate, public education) to all students in the classroom,” Langberg wrote.

The agreement, which was drafted by federal officials and agreed to by the district, also compels the district to offer a meeting to the families of all 10 students in Steamboat Springs High School’s special needs classroom to discuss whether IEPs were met this school year.

Anne-Marie Tennyson, the district’s director of exceptional student services, said four families have taken the district up on this offer, and the meetings are in the process of being set up.

If it is determined an IEP was not met in those meetings, the district will create a plan to provide compensatory services to the student at no charge, according to the agreement.

The Office of Civil Rights will continue to monitor the district’s progress on the agreement until it determines no further reporting is required.

The agreement comes as the district has been hampered by staffing shortages since the start of the school year, especially among special education paraprofessionals. In December, parents of special education students, including Johnston, expressed concerns about how staffing shortages were affecting their children’s education.

Johnston said she decided to file the complaint in January after Meeks said in December that, to the best of his knowledge, all IEPs were being met.

“I knew that my son’s IEP was not being met,” Johnston said, adding that her complaint was endorsed by 11 other families with special needs students.

There are currently seven open paraprofessional positions in the district, four of which are at the high school, two are at the middle school and one is at Sleeping Giant School. Meeks said his goal for the district is to figure out how to get fully staffed in all positions.

Katie Jacobs, the district’s human resource director, said she has pursued a variety of ways to reach applicants and when someone applies.

While those that do apply have often been qualified, the pool of people isn’t very big, Tennyson said. Meeks stressed that filling vacant roles is a daily priority.

On Monday, May 2, Johnston and other parents of special needs students spoke during public comment of the school board meeting in support of a proposal from the Steamboat Springs Education Association that would increase starting pay for paras to $21.66 an hour, plus benefits. Currently the minimum, starting wage is $17.33 an hour, plus benefits.

The district’s latest proposal to the union would bump the starting wage of paras to $18.56 an hour, plus benefits.

Meeks stressed that benefits are important to consider and comparing wages to other jobs in town isn’t necessarily accurate. When counting insurance, retirement contributions and other benefits, the minimum hourly wage in the proposal equates to about $31.79 an hour.

Board member Chresta Brinkman, who is in on the negations, said the district’s proposal seeks to increase wages for the district’s lowest-earning workers including paras, custodians and food service workers.

For larger increases, there would need to be changes elsewhere in the budget, she said.

Meeks said the union’s latest proposal would increase overall compensation by about $2.6 million, where the district’s latest proposal would increase it by about $1.4 million. The two sides will meet next week for another bargaining meeting.

Johnston said including benefits when talking about what paras make is a valid point, but despite these benefits, many positions have remained open. She pushed school board members to increase pay even more.

“It takes an incredibly compassionate village to raise a special needs child,” Johnston said, adding she feels lucky to live in Steamboat. “Our educators do their part. Our parents do their part … The vast majority of incredibly empathetic students do their part. We are asking the administration to do their part as well.”

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