Special education faces budget slashes

BY RYAN COLE | JANUARY 20, 2011 7:10 AM

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Special-education and teacher-training programs across the state could soon face significant budget reductions following proposed statewide budget cuts, and local educators said they could face layoffs in the near future.

Republican state representatives brought House File 45 to the floor Wednesday afternoon. The bill, which also proposes cuts to several areas, would decrease Area Educational Agencies funds by $10 million.

The organization has around $30 million in reserve funds, allowing it to handle reduced aid more easily, said Dawn Pettengill, R-Vinton.

Representative Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, speculated the bill “will probably pass out of the House” and go before the Senate. The bill would need approval from that body before continuing to Gov. Terry Branstad, who could sign it into law.

Brent Siegrist, director of state services for the Iowa Area Educational Agencies, agreed the agency had the resources to absorb this loss in the short-term. The organization, which provides teacher training and special-education services, currently receives $108 million in state funding. Of that, $79 million goes toward special-education programs.

“As most of our employees are under contract, that [money] would come out of the reserves,” Siegrist said, referring to the $30 million emergency fund maintained in accordance with state law.

In a few months though, he said, the budget cuts would result in reductions of staff numbers in fiscal 2012, beginning July 1.

Ron Fielder estimates 15 staff members would be laid off at Grant Wood Area Educational Agency, where he serves as chief administrator.

“Roughly 80 percent of our budget is in staff salary,” he said.

The Grant Wood agency, one of the state’s nine such departments, is based in Cedar Rapids and provides special-education services for the Iowa City School District and surrounding schools.

“[The budget cuts] would have a huge impact on our ability to provide the kind of quality service that students and families expect,” Fielder said. “The case loads of remaining staff would skyrocket beyond what is acceptable.”

Southeast Junior High special-education teacher Ryan Ahlers agreed a limited faculty would be detrimental to the program’s reach and effectiveness.

“With a lower number of staff members, it would be more difficult to serve as many students as we have or could have,” he said.

Ahlers has taught special education for the last three years, and he typically works with another teacher in a class that comprises 11 students. He stressed the importance of a full, qualified staff of educational employees and the impact they can have.

“For me, [teaching is about] the day to day work with students, being part of their life and having them feel comfortable and confident that their teachers care about them,” he said.

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