As concerns about special education continue to swirl around in the community, the Killeen Independent School District seeks to fill a top-priority job listing — executive director of special education.
Almost a month into the new school year, this position is not the only unfilled special education vacancy. The special education department needs to fill 28 positions, ranging from executive director to instructional aides.
Meanwhile, parents of special-needs children continue to challenge the district on special education issues.
In a decision announced Monday from a hearing in July, state special education hearing officer Penny Wilkov ruled in favor of a parent in a case involving Killeen ISD.
According to documents obtained by the Herald, Wilcov found the district “violated IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act), in that it failed to evaluate, and properly address, the behavioral issues experienced by the student.” The ruling went on to say that Killeen ISD failed to provide a free appropriate public education.
“Generally speaking, based on what I have seen, (Killeen ISD) is worse than Beaumont ISD, which was taken over by the state,” said special education lawyer Dorene Philpot, who represented the petitioner in Monday’s hearing.
The state takeover Philpot refers to occurred in spring 2014 when the Texas Education Agency assumed control of the Beaumont Independent School District following an FBI and district attorney’s office investigation revealed millions of dollars of embezzled funds, improper testing procedures and illegal bidding practices.
As a result of the takeover, TEA Commissioner Michael Williams appointed a new superintendent and board of managers to run the troubled Beaumont school district.
While the Killeen school district searches for a replacement, the duties of special education director fell to Diana Miller, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
The special education director oversees a special-needs student population of more than 5,000 children and more than 700 special education employees.
According to TEA Public Education Information Management System data, 5,945 special education students attended school in the Killeen school district during the 2013-2014 school year, the last year on record.
“It’s best for the district to fill those important positions as quickly as possible, certainly when you have a vulnerable population that has a lot of needs,” TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said Friday.
There are conflicting reports as to when former special education director Lynn Young left the district. The district did not respond to the Herald’s request for confirmation Thursday; however, educators say they heard about the vacancy before school let out for summer last year.
“We never got an official email,” retired special education teacher Irene Andrews said Friday. “I heard through the grapevine (about the vacancy) at the end of the school year.”
In a previous interview with the Herald, Miller said the special education executive director, listed as Lynn Young, retired this year. Her retirement took effect Aug. 31.
According to district officials, on July 30, the district hired Austin-based JG Consulting to fill the special education executive director vacancy, almost a month earlier than Young’s official retirement date in August. The Herald was unable to contact JG Consulting to ask about the posting. The company website offers limited contact information — no phone number, email address or physical address.
“JG Consulting is an executive search firm that works with school districts to find executive level administrator applicants via a national search process,” district officials with the Killeen ISD human resource department said Thursday via email.
JG Consulting charges $6,500 for its services, district officials said.
Thursday, district human resources officials said they have not interviewed for the special education director position, but they have received 18 applications.
“We are currently screening applications to determine the best candidates to interview,” district officials said.
Amy Foster, the former coordinator for special education compliance, left the district about the same time as her superior. Her position remains vacant.
As of Thursday, human resources officials said they have not interviewed an applicant for the special education coordinator position; 21 applicants have applied.
“While we remain eager to fill the Executive Director for Special Education Services, Coordinator for Special Education Campus Operations, and vacant positions, we will remain diligent in our efforts to ensure the best qualified and optimal candidates are interviewed and selected to meet the needs of the district,” Superintendent John Craft said in a statement Friday.
The special education director has a laundry list of duties associated with the position, according to a job description provided by the district.
The director must be up to date on special education laws and must be able to develop and initiate Child Find procedures for continuous identification of students with disabilities, among many other tasks.
Parents of special-needs children say parental outreach needs to be at the top of the laundry list on the next director’s priorities.
Lan Carter, a parent of a former Killeen ISD special-needs student, said she never received answers to her concerns emailed to former director Lynn Young. When Young made contact, the director was unable to help.
“(Lynn Young) was never rude or disrespectful, but often said she had to talk to somebody else because they were pulling the strings,” Carter said. “I don’t think she actually had control.”
Andrews said she hopes the next director is more visible and communicative than past directors.
“Here’s the deal: For the last few years, we didn’t even know who the head of the special education is,” she said. “We never met them. That shouldn’t happen. Every person involved in special education should know by name and be able to recognize the person who is head of special education.”
“Leadership should be more visible, contact with special ed staff should be more frequent, so that everybody is on the same page,” Andrews said Friday. “Give us the same mutual respect.”
“If they heard from their special ed departments, then they would know which campuses to focus on or which campuses are in the greatest need,” Andrews said. “That way, the services across the district would be equitable.”
Further investigation revealed that while qualifications are similar for the special education director position at Temple, Belton, Killeen and Copperas Cove ISDs, the positions differ in how they interact with the school campuses.
Belton and Copperas Cove school districts require a Texas mid-management certificate, a valid teaching certificate and a special education certificate in addition to a master’s degree and five years of special education experience.
Temple ISD requires “teaching experience in a special education classroom setting and extensive experience working with students with disabilities,” according to a job description provided by the district.
Applicants for Killeen ISD’s special education director position are required to possess a master’s degree and five years of experience in special education, a mid-management/principal certificate and a special education certificate.
Three of the districts — Belton, Cove and Temple ISDs — said campus involvement is integral for the position of special education director. Killeen ISD didn’t respond to a request for information on the campus involvement question.
“The director and special ed coordinator make regular visits to campuses to review data, observe classrooms and consult on special education matters, with the special education director visiting campuses and classrooms on a schedule of a minimum of three campuses per week,” TISD spokesman Matthew LeBlanc said Thursday.
Both Temple and Belton ISDs pay similar salaries to their special education directors: $78,000. Copperas Cove ISD’s special education director makes more than $90,000.
The salary for the same position at Killeen ISD ranges from $83,000 to $108,000, according to the pay scale found on the district’s website.
Special Education following
The Herald has reported on parents’ special education concerns for the last five years. The newspaper’s current special education investigative series began in light of the TEA investigation last spring that found Killeen ISD to be noncompliant in providing timely special education evaluation testing for the last seven years.
The district’s board said it was unaware of the compliance issue until a workshop in late July.
“I was frustrated because that report had never been presented to us before,” said board member Susan Jones in a previous interview with the Herald. “I did not know we had been missing testing dates to that degree.”
A special education support group, called Concerned Citizens of Killeen ISD, sprang up last week on Facebook.
“I started the group because I kept hearing individual stories about KISD, but felt that these parents — who felt alone — would benefit from conversing with others who had also experienced problems in getting help for their children,” said the group’s founder, Laura Allen, via email Thursday. “I had no idea there were so many people out there looking for an outlet like this.”
More than 250 people are members of the group.
In the absence of a district-sponsored forum, the Herald and Austin-based Cuddy Law Firm have joined forces to host a Special Education Forum for parents, educators and other concerned district 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 the event.
Attendees will hear from special education experts, as well as have a chance to share concerns and ask questions. More details about the program’s lineup will be provided next week.