The Pleasanton school district decided Tuesday night to look at providing better services for special needs children -- and save itself some money in the bargain.
The district hired Total School Solutions to create an action plan for special education, and the plan, including both short- and long-term goals, was unveiled at its Tuesday night school board meeting.
"Our desire is to further improve the overall quality of special education services to effectively address the learning needs of our students with disabilities," said Odie Douglas, the district's newly-hired assistant superintendent of educational services.
The cost of special education programs rose by nearly $2 million from the 2010-11 school year to the school year just ended.
That included more than $200,000 in legal bills and settlements and more than $288,000 for room and board for students who received services outside the district. The district also spent $325,000 in occupational therapy contract expenses for 154 students in the 2011-12 school year.
By offering compliance training and professional development for teachers and administrators as recommended by the consultants, the district hopes to cut down on settlements and legal bills, and keep more students home instead of sending them elsewhere.
Total School Solutions also recommended rehiring a school psychologist and program specialist, which, Douglas said, could save the district money in the long run.
"Hopefully, we will increase our program efficiency and reduce the number of students requiring special education services by providing more support for students in the regular education program," he said.
The ultimate goal is to "mainstream" as many students as possible, said school Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi.
"Let's be clear that our goal is to exit students from special education services," she said. "It's best for students to be in general education. Sometimes when they go into special education they have special needs, but our goal is to exit them."
At its first meeting since the summer break, the school board also heard a report on the 45-day revision to the state budget. For the most part, little has changed, although the district did learn that transitional kindergarten will be fully funded, despite Gov. Jerry Brown's effort to eliminate support. That means an extra $78,000 in state revenue.
"As a reminder, the governor's budget assumed that his initiative would pass in November," said Luz Cazares, assistant superintendent of business services. "Flat funding is what that buys us, so not more money, the same money."
Cazares said the district will probably not know much more about its financial situation until after the General Election on Nov. 6. That's when it will know if voters approved the governor's tax increase and additional information will be available from the state Legislative Analyst Office about revenues.
The district may also have to do some short-term borrowing because the state is expected to withhold payouts. That will likely cost the district money to pay interest for short-term borrowing of up to $30 million to cover its bills.
Brown's tax increase, Proposition 30, is one of two competing measures that would provide additional funding for the district. Board Member Jamie Hintzke noted the other, Proposition 38, also known as Our Children, Our Future, would provide more local control of money, since funds would be sent directly to the district.
However, Board President Joan Laursen pointed out that ballot measure would not give the district as much in its first year as it would get through Brown's initiative.
"The loss for us in 2013 would be $400,000," Laursen said. "Each initiative would affect us in different ways."
The board opted not to vote on whether to endorse either tax measure, deferring action until its next meeting so it could vote on supporting one or both, since the two initiatives were bundled into a single resolution. The California School Board Association decided to support either one, fearing that one or the other could lose.
"I think the biggest risk in the November election is that there's confusion up and down the state and people would say, 'I'm just not going to vote,'" said Board Member Chris Grant.
Should both initiatives pass, the one with more votes would take effect, Ahmadi said
With the start of the school year comes staggered reading for first-, second- and third-graders. While the initial flak -- largely over scheduling -- has died down, one parent, Janel Sloan, asked the board to measure the differences in test scores as class sizes went last year from 20 to 25, and now to 30.
Sloan also asked the board to track the progress of those in the program as they move up in grade levels, asking, "Is it really needed for third grade?"
The board also approved a revenue-neutral plan to upgrade lighting and some heating and ventilation systems. Under a PG&E program, the upgrades will be paid for by the amount the bill is lowered; bills will remain the same with the savings applied to the cost of the newly installed improvements. School officials expect that will be done in less than seven years, and that the district could save about $130,000 a year after that.