Photo depicting protestors outside the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence carrying signs that read "Needs Before Numbers."

South End Equity Questions After Protest Highlights Special Education Staffing Moves

by Ari Robin McKenna

A mix of well over a hundred teachers, parents, and students showed up at the district headquarters in SoDo Wednesday, Oct. 27, for a rally on a quickly darkening, drizzly evening. A number of speeches were given under the partially covered colonnade in front of a red wall — on the other side of that wall the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) board was in a budget session addressing a $28.1 million loss of revenue due to enrollment decline and eyeing an estimated gap of $78 million for the 2022–2023 school year.

The rally was organized by Seattle Education Association (SEA) leadership in conjunction with the Special Education PTSA (SEPTSA). The protest was in response to word that there would be 50 schools affected by special education staffing adjustments — which SEPTSA reported on their blog. With the slogan “Needs Before Numbers,” the speakers at the rally criticized the impact of these moves at specific schools and a general lack of parent and teacher involvement in staffing decisions. Attendees also questioned whether a disproportionate amount of the 3,440 students that have left the district since 2019 were receiving appropriate special education services.

Tess Bath, a special education instructional assistant at Highland Park’s Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program, addressed the crowd warmly. “It’s really nice to be here with all y’all. We’ve been crying a lot and it feels really healing to just share space.” The start of the 2021–2022 school year, on the heels of two COVID-disrupted years, has been brutal on educators, and Bath read from a letter she’d sent to the district about how disruptive staffing changes can be in her line of work. “SEL is built on consistent and trusting relationships. To sever those would alter the very foundation of our program and our ability to do our jobs and serve our students … They deserve to have enough support to meet their IEP [Individual Education Program] goals, access their LRE [Least Restrictive Environment], and be seen as a priority by their school district.”

The disruption that occurs when a single educator is required to leave their school and the relationships they’ve built is incalculable. But given the context of a pandemic, a massive budget shortfall, and a special education system that favors white students, some have expressed doubts about the timing of this rally, and the information that catalyzed it. 

Sebrena Burr, the former Seattle Council PTSA president and longtime South End education activist, feels that misinformation about the number of teachers who actually have to move schools was being leveraged to create an uproar to position SEA for future collective bargaining. Burr also doesn’t feel that either the SEA or the SEPTSA is currently looking out for the interests of students in the South End.

Janis White, the SEPTSA president, specified why she felt the need to pressure the district with a rally at this particular moment. White wants to see parents on the Special Education Task Force “[s]o that voice is at the table.” While she acknowledged that there weren’t any parents on the task force during the prior superintendent Denise Juneau’s administration — as the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between SEA and SPS states there should be — White feels it’s past time for it to happen under current Superintendent Brent Jones’ tenure. “I’m trying to take a very reasonable position on behalf of the PTSA, which is: Get it going!”

Jennifer Matter, president of the SEA, said, “… Maybe I’m too simplistic in my thinking — but a really simple thing that they [the district] could have done, is they could have said, ‘Hey, we need to make staffing adjustments. Here’s the current enrollment in your programs at your building. School, what do you envision would be the kind of staffing adjustments we would make? Let’s see what your vision is first. …”

District 1 board member Liza Rankin, Student Services, Curriculum & Instruction Committee chair, spoke of the district’s special education staffing adjustment process to the Emerald and what the board’s priorities were given the context. Rankin clarified that the process of looking at special education staffing happens every year, quarterly. SPS is currently 74 full-time educators over in special education staffing because of enrollment decline, but that number itself is determined by the ratios locked into the current CBA with SEA. Rankin stated that the board directed the district to prioritize maintaining staffing despite the fact that state education funding is determined on a per-pupil basis, “because it’s a pandemic and we want stability for students as much as possible, and to keep people employed when there is so much need to recover from last year.”

There were some schools that did not have sufficient staffing despite the district-wide enrollment decline. Because of this, says Rankin, special education, enrollment, and HR departments identify staffing changes to respond to that need. She said, “That is the equitable way to approach this, not by who can make the biggest case for their hardship. It’s all hard! When we pit schools against each other, or adult needs against kids, the same communities lose.”

Ultimately, the district chose to continue employing all of their special education staff, but there were 7 teachers and 8 instructional assistants who were moved from schools. While Rankin acknowledged that each of these moves causes enormous disruption for teachers, students, and families, Rankin feels, in this case, for a school system this big, they did their best. 

“Yes, I am very proud that we haven’t laid people off as other districts have. Dr. Rocky [Torres, executive director of special education,] did a ton of work.” While word got out before the rally that only 15 special education educators — and not 50 — would need to change schools, it was held regardless.

At the rally, White credited parent and teacher pressure. “We went from staff displacements at 50 schools, to a total of 15 staff members being displaced. That’s a big difference. And why did that happen in the last week? Because of educator voices and family voices rising up and talking about it.” 

Rankin bristled at the suggestion, calling it “an unfortunate misrepresentation.” She said that the number 50 used to spur the rally actually referred to overall adjustments — including special education and English language support — between HR and buildings all over the district to meet student needs in accordance with the CBA. The number 15 refers, specifically, to the subset of special education teachers who needed to be moved from one building to another.

Rankin maintains, “That number hasn’t changed in the last three weeks, and 50 people were never going to be displaced.”

Burr questioned whether those with access to information about staffing adjustments are sharing it with teachers and parents, and went on to question the motives of rally organizers. “It’s a lot of hoopla. … This has nothing to do with kids. This has nothing to do with families. Shame on them [Janis White and Jennifer Matter] … They’re not inclusive. This is some white supremacy stuff. This is other people talking for our kids, and we need them to stop. We know our stories and we can speak for our kids. Get out of the way.”

While Washington is already one of the worst states in the country as far as inclusionary educational practices, additionally, in the South End many families refrain from pursuing an Individual Education Plan (IEP), which should ensure equal education for children assessed to have special needs, or having their child diagnosed with a disability in the first place. In part that is the result of stigma and special education’s known link to a racist criminal justice system.

Adana Protonentis, an equity consultant and the mother of two kids with disabilities in the South End, says the system currently favors certain families. “An IEP in theory is a tool. It should be completely neutral, if anything, a positive thing … For some families, though, and in some settings, the IEP ends up becoming a double-edged sword, because it has the potential to give you access to services and support that you need, and it can be used as a weapon against you — kind of like a scarlet letter for your kid.” 

Protonentis says that while there are ways parents can mitigate the risk of a diagnosis being harmful and not helpful, they all require time and/or money. She fears IEPs themselves are becoming a tool that requires “a complement” of resources to be used with success and fulfill its intended promise. “But if you don’t have access to all of those things, then the other edge of the sword can cut you. I think that’s at the heart of some of the trepidation that families feel.” 

Burr thinks that a departure from the racist norms of the past involves moving away from modalities that favor those with resources, and it requires that the district resist the tendency to favor the parents who have time and energy for advocacy at the expense of South End families who don’t. “[Associate superintendent] Dr. Pedroza is doing the work. [The district is] working really hard to hear voices that they have not heard in the past. It used to be the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And that was the white families that made the most noise and they got their way.”

A believer that disability justice and racial equity justice must intersect, Protonentis says, “We can’t call any kind of special education assistance successful if it’s not working for the most marginalized kid within special education. So that would be the immigrant, kid of color, living in poverty, housing insecure, food insecurity; it’s that child. Until special education works for them, I don’t think it works. I don’t believe in trickle down social justice. I think it’s bullshit, frankly. And unfortunately, for too long, what’s happened in a variety of disability rights settings, it’s been disability rights for white people.”

📸 Featured Image: Protestors gathered outside the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, to make their voices heard about the disruptive building-to-building movement of 15 special education educators. (Photo: Ari McKenna)

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