ADAMS TWP — An emotional, capacity crowd packed the Mars School Board meeting room Tuesday to voice concerns and displeasure with the district's special education programs, with one parent calling the situation a “crisis.”
Members of the group, consisting mostly of parents of students with special needs, addressed the board during a public comment period preceding and following Tuesday's work session. Many referenced a recently released audit performed by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Special Education, which found the district lacking in several areas.
The audit, completed in December and released in January, included on-site monitoring of the district's programs and interviews with personnel and staff, a review of policies and data, and interviews with parents and students.
The report indicates the district is out of compliance with state rules in a number of areas, including “least restrictive environment,” which is based on a student's ability to be educated with nondisabled peers to the greatest extent possible.
Other areas of non-compliance include parent training, personnel training and a lack of documentation used for students to make the transition from high school to college or the work force.
The report does commend the district for using a model apartment to teach life skills to students.
According to Joe Merhaut of Keystone Educational Consulting Group, who was hired by the district to address issues for the current school year, the district has been placed in “corrective action” for two years following the audit, which is conducted every six years. Specifically, the least-restrictive environment category will be a focus moving forward.
“We have a lot of students placed out in approved private settings,” he said, adding that many are doing well.
However, he said the district must address why those placements are happening — which is mainly due to the fact that programming is not available at the district's schools.
“We don't have the programming we need,” Merhaut said, adding that programming will start to be created at Mars Primary Center and be implemented in a progression. “This is going to take time. There's not a magic wand that we wave and fix it overnight, but it's something that's going to happen in due time.”
Merhaut said the majority of changes will come through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process, and the district has one year to show changes are being made.
State officials will visit the district every few months to check in and make sure progress is occurring. He said the audit, while showing flaws, is a helpful step in the process.
However, parents at Tuesday's meeting said the issues on display in the audit are nothing new. A dozen parents shared their experiences, with many saying board members should not be shocked by the findings.
“The Mars Area School District has an extreme problem with the special education department,” said parent Julia Konitzky, who has two children who require special educational considerations.
Konitzky said the most recent audit indicates the same issues found in a 2012 study of the district's program, which is a red flag for parents.
“This is old news,” she said. “(Corrective action) should have started a long time ago.”
Other parents said they dreaded the end of the school year, as it meant a renewal of a battle to get their child the education and plan they required.
Some, who said they taught in neighboring school districts that offer far better services, questioned why a school district in an area with an ever-growing tax base was unable to provide proper services.
Others said they have turned to spending their own money to send their children to private schools.
Parent Jennifer McAfee said while the work done by Keystone Educational Consulting Group has been a positive step, the contract is up at the end of the year, leaving 12 months of work hanging in the balance.
“I want this board to understand ... you need to give the resources,” McAfee said. “Find the funding you need. ... This is not a poor district.”
Jeff Smith, who has a son in high school, said he has spent years hearing from state education representatives and medical professionals that his child's IEP is lacking, a statement echoed by many who spoke.
“The feedback we get was 'this is the worst IEP I've ever seen for a student who has a disability,'” he said, adding that things have gotten so bad that he won't have a discussion about the plan without his lawyer present.
Smith asked the board to find a way to address the issues, saying they are ultimately accountable for them. He and others added they would be willing to form a group and work with the district to address the problems.
“We're not asking for anything extra, just the basic stuff,” Konitzky said. “I just want to fix this.”
While the public comment period is not intended to be a question-and-answer session, Wes Shipley, district superintendent, did address those who spoke, saying the district welcomed the audit process. He said progress is already being made, with state officials visiting the school this week to review the process.
He cautioned, however, that changes will take time, especially ones that have a lasting impact.
“It will take time for us to build it if it's going to be built with fidelity,” he said. “We are committed to that, but it has to be systematic.”
J. Dayle Ferguson, school board president, said she and other board members welcomed parents' feedback, and that the audit process is, “part of doing a good job.” She indicated the issue will continue to be a priority.
“Just because time runs out (this evening), that doesn't mean the dialogue needs to stop,” she said.