After the Herald’s monthlong investigative series into complaints of problems with the Killeen Independent School District’s special education program and an emotionally charged public forum Tuesday, most board members say the district is addressing the issues.
During the forum, numerous special-needs parents and educators shared their stories of special education struggles.
“We are concerned that since the scandal became public on July 25, other than brief and generalized statements that Killeen ISD is providing ‘adequate services,’ nothing has been provided by the district detailing its long-term corrective plans, its progress in determining necessary corrections and making those corrections once they are determined,” said Rick Beaule, president of the Killeen Educators Association.
“I’m here based on the special education PBS (positive behavior support) program at my son’s school,” said Connie Fouchs, a special-needs parent. “My son never acted up until we came here. I think it is wrong that the PBS students are kept in their classroom like dogs. ... I was almost to a point of sending my son back to my family because of the lack of equal education here.”
Other parents want openness from Killeen ISD and cited costly legal expenses in their battle for special education services.
“We need more transparency and accountability; we need to work together — instead of existing in this hostile environment,” said Lan Carter, whose lawsuit against the district will go before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans later this year.
As of Friday, the district hadn’t responded to the concerns expressed by the forum’s participants about Killeen ISD’s special education services.
The Herald’s four-part investigative series of the district’s special education program began after a board workshop in late July revealed that the district had failed to test 100 percent of children to determine whether they qualified for special education services within the state’s required 45-day period.
The issue was never brought to board members’ attention before the July workshop, though the district has been out of compliance for seven straight years. The latest 2013-2014 score of 53 percent — well below the state-mandated 100 percent threshold — prompted a visit by a Texas Education Agency official last spring.
The board’s bylaws prohibit members from responding to comments made during public forums. In the days following the board meeting, the Herald reached out to each board member, along with Superintendent John Craft, to get their thoughts about the district’s special education program.
Board members are elected by the district’s voters to three-year terms. Trustees Susan Jones, Corbett Lawler and Shelley Wells are up for re-election in May.
The majority of board members acknowledged that problems exist within the special education department.
“I think it’s apparent that we need a lot of work on special education,” board member Marvin Rainwater said. “I knew we needed work, but now it’s more critical than I thought it was.”
“You are always going to hear about the problems and all you can do is try to address them one by one,” board President Terry Delano said.
“My feeling is whatever problem exists — because you’re dealing with children — zero problems is your goal,” board Vice President Corbett Lawler said. “If there is one child not being served, that is not acceptable.”
Only one board member, Minerva Trujillo, denied the special education program has problems.
“I think you are getting one side of the story,” Trujillo said. “I wish people would see the whole picture, the caring picture. We do not have a special education problem. We may have a perception problem.”
Trustees were given the opportunity to discuss what steps they would like the board to take to address the special education issues.
Joann Purser and Trujillo cited general corrective plans for special education.
“We’re allowing the administration to implement a new procedure; we just have to allow them the time to give us some feedback as to whether that procedure is working,” Purser said Wednesday.
“We have an improvement plan in place. There is a plan in place. The whole spectrum is part of this plan,” Trujillo said. “It will be up to everybody in the district to implement that plan according to what the plan contains. If I’m not wrong, it’s in place.”
The remaining five board members said they believed special education issues would be tackled by an internal audit into the special education program coupled with the comprehensive action plan, which the board approved in July in response to TEA’s investigation into special education evaluation testing non-compliance.
“Please understand we are working on this. As a board we are in the process of doing an internal audit — once we do that, we will know if there are any issues we need to address other than the ones pointed out by TEA,” board member Susan Jones said Wednesday. “We will continue to work on resolving these issues. I’m confident Dr. Craft will follow through on that.”
The internal audit, conducted by Gibson Consulting, located in Austin, is not expected to be completed until later this fall by KISD’s Board Audit Committee.
According to the committee’s charter, its mission is to “oversee the Killeen ISD internal audit function, advise the board on audit plans, and inform the board of internal audit reports and recommendations.”
The findings of the audit and any recommendations will be presented behind closed doors.
Public forum speakers on Tuesday also weighed in on the board’s handling of special education.
“I would like them to share exactly what has been put in place,” Carter said Thursday.
“Me being a parent, I don’t see anything changing, nothing has been put out about plans. What about these kids now? Did they educate their staff this year on (special education) policies?”
“I expressed this to the board previously — the audit leaves out key stakeholders, which are the parents,” said Phyllis Nairn, a special-needs advocate. “If you leave out the parent and you leave out the students who are mostly affected by the decisions of the board, then the audit is just a waste of money.”
“You can’t recover lost instructional time. Waiting and seeing sounds pretty lame for a district that prides itself on higher thinking. This doesn’t fit with the take on best practices and excellence in education,” said Kris Hayhurst, a mother of a special-needs KISD student. “I would expect better.”
“Killeen Educators (Association) has never disputed the leading role that the KISD administration needs to play in resolving the systemic concerns involving its Special Education Programs, and also making sure that they are handled in the right way for all concerned stakeholders,” Beaulè said Thursday in an email. “We are glad that the Board is reminding them of that need. We stand ready to assist with the public component we still believe is necessary to fully restore the trust of the KISD community.”
In an effort to reach out to the public, most board members said they are in favor of a town hall or public workshop.
“That’s something we as a board could be sensitive to — we need to make sure we can start eroding that distrust factor away by communicating,” Rainwater said.
“I’m not opposed to hearing the opinions and concerns of parents in the community, but I think we have to give the administration some opportunity to address these problems,” Delano said.
Superintendent John Craft did not respond directly to the same questions asked of the board, but instead released an official statement on special education.
“The district is currently researching options to assist the administration to engage shareholders in open communication facilitate public comments and concerns and capitalize on meaningful and productive dialogue,” Craft said in a statement Friday. “We believe the approach will help provide useful feedback to help guide both campus and district continuous improvement planning and programming.”
“The Killeen Independent School District remains committed to our mission ‘to teach so that students learn to their maximum potential,’” Craft said. “In doing so, we realize the continuous improvement process is never complete, and truly a process. We will engage out students, staff and community to assist in the process to ensure all students are successful.”
The Herald will co-sponsor a Special Education Forum for parents, educators and other concerned residents. The free event will take place at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29.
District administrators and board members are invited to attend. Attendees will hear from special education experts as well as have a chance to share concerns and ask questions.