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Fresno Trustees: Much More Work Needed on District’s Special Education Plan



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Fresno Unified’s proposal to bulk up the number of managers and support staff for special education met with sharp criticism Wednesday from trustees who raised a series of questions, including:

  • Why Dr. Tangee Pinheiro’s role would be expanded from instructional superintendent for special education, a job she has held since August 2021, to instructional superintendent for special education and student services.
  • Why the district still has nearly 1,000 individual education plans, or IEPs, yet to be completed by the June 30 deadline.
  • What the district is doing to improve the graduation rates for special education students, which historically lags about 20 percentage points below the district average.
  • Whether the board’s goal to have a school psychologist assigned to each school — a goal that was not met this year — was even a valid goal in the first place.

And, Wednesday’s questions were just the warm-up for what could be intense one-on-one and small group meetings the trustees are scheduled to have with Dr. Natasha Baker, the district’s chief academic officer, Pinheiro, and other administrators to talk about the special education proposals.

The proposals are part of the district’s preparations for completing the budget for the 2023-24 school year.

More Staffing

The district wants to spend $6.8 million more to increase the size of the staff, adding an assistant superintendent for special education/SELPA director, a general director, 38 paraeducators, six behavior support advisers, two manager IIIs, a manager II, a program technician, an administrative assistant, and four office assistants in the general fund.

A district spokeswoman said that Pinheiro is serving as both instructional superintendent for special education and as the interim SELPA director. The district’s former SELPA director, Sean Virnig, is now working in the district’s charter school office.

The district also wants to spend $2.8 million in one-time COVID and other funds for a registered behavioral technician contract to provide instructional aides, the Wonderworks curriculum, and a paraeducator contract to fill in for vacancies.

That would come on top of special education’s current budget of $200 million to provide education and services to 10,000 students.

SELPA is the acronym for special education local plan area. Paraeducators are employees without a teaching certificate who work with students under the supervision of teachers.

The district has adopted a regional model of support, putting instructional and special education managers into regions where they can provide better service to students and families, Pinheiro said. The structure also “ensures appropriate mentoring and coaching of all educators,” she said.

The new positions would help support that regional model, Pinheiro said.

IEP Delays

As for the backlog of IEPs, “COVID was not our friend,” Baker told the board. As of May 7, district employees still had 943 IEPs to complete, she said. None of them were first-time IEPs.

But Trustee Susan Wittrup, who worked for decades as a Fresno Unified school psychologist, said she thinks the district needs to place less emphasis on IEP compliance and more on making sure that children are getting appropriate placements so they can succeed in school.

“We have a history of working really hard and getting our IEPs done, years and years and years of that. But what we also have a history with, (and) that concerns me, are the details and the experiences at school sites for kids, for each individual child and for staff and in a classroom,” she said. “And what I continue to see, but I don’t hear much about, are the kinds of systemic failures in the placements that are made, where they’re not prepared, where it’s a very bad placement, where the work’s not done, where the communication isn’t there.”

Trustees questioned why some schools have a full-time school psychologist while some schools share a school psychologist. The district was able to hire only 20 of the 27 new psychologists and seven of 15 additional regional instructional managers that were approved in a $33 million budget allocation for this year.

Equality v. Equity

But the board’s clear direction to the administration to staff one school psychologist at each school may have been misguided, Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas said.

Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas

“When we’re doing staffing and we’re just saying we’re going to just throw one person here and one person there because one, we’re doing equality versus equity. And that’s exactly what happened with school psychologists.” — Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas

Having regional managers doesn’t make sense if there are more schools in some regions than others, and assigning full-time school psychologists to smaller schools, or to schools with fewer students needing special education services, also doesn’t make sense, she said.

Plus, it violates the board’s clear goal to achieve equity across the board, Jonasson Rosas said.

“When we’re doing staffing and we’re just saying we’re going to just throw one person here and one person there because one, we’re doing equality versus equity. And that’s exactly what happened with school psychologists,” she said. ” We didn’t look at the demand. We didn’t look at the number of students. We didn’t look at any of that. We just said, one. And we kept doing that. So then our commitment to equity seems like it’s vague.”

Need to Keep Focus on Special Education

Wittrup said she was concerned that Pinheiro’s job was being expanded, even while the three positions under her on the organization chart are now marked vacant.

According to the special education website, Patrick Morrison is serving as the interim executive director for special education-SELPA. The other two positions would be new.

“I’m very concerned about the org chart that has vacant positions in special education. You know that’s the plan. And so we have to find people now again, to find people to lead this work. And there are three of them with the proposed budget. There are three vacancies of leadership, and it feels like an abandonment to me,” Wittrup said. “… I would like to see Dr. Pinheiro stay and finish the job, start the job, get it done with the support of this board.”

Baker replied that Pinheiro will still oversee special education, with the assistance of the additional proposed administrators, in addition to overseeing student services. By expanding Pinheiro’s role, the district will be able to provide more cohesive services at school sites instead of the fragmented services that at times are confusing to school officials as well as students and parents, she said.

“But regardless of that piece, we definitely need additional capacity in the Special Education Department with folks who have a background in special ed,” Baker said.

Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email