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Oregon families say state falls behind on special needs students

http://www.kgw.com/sharedcontent/APStories/stories/D8QH6P7O1.html Oregon families say state falls behind on special needs students 07/21/2007 By JULIA SILVERMAN / Associated Press Nearly every area associated with education got a significant budget boost from the Oregon Legislature this year, from pre-kindergarten programs to the state's seven universities. Except, that is, for a fairly obscure regional program that serves an estimated 8,000 or so families across Oregon whose children are autistic, or struggle with orthopedic problems, or were born deaf, blind or both. The ranks of such families are small, but growing fast, by 20 percent in the last two years alone. And their voices, they thought, were loud — but apparently not loud enough. Now, the program in question, which is collectively run by eight regional education cooperatives to provide local teachers the training and support on how to work with special-needs kids, is facing a funding plateau. Lawmakers put $31.8 million into the program, a $1 million increase, but still about $4 million short of the funding request from State Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo. That's enough to cover a cost-of-living boost for current staff over the next two years, but not enough to hire any new help to cope with the increasing student population. James Sager, an education policy adviser to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, said that in the end, the program simply slipped through the cracks. And toward the end of the session, lawmakers were reluctant to carve any money out of a $260 million fund slated to go directly to school districts for targeted improvements, like reducing class sizes. "We need to do a better job next cycle of showing where the increased costs have occurred and why there needs to be additional funding in that particular area," Sager said. The upshot of the essentially flat funding is that each employee will have more children to focus on, perhaps adding 10 or 12 more students and their families to already full plates, said Sue Mathisen, who directs the Lane Regional Program in Eugene. "The long and short of it is that caseloads will be much higher, we will continue to offer the same services, but staffing will be much more stretched," Mathisen said. "But we have experienced such large growth over the years, it has become normal — people almost expect it. It's kind of like here we go again." One reason the regional programs may have slipped under the radar is that most of their employees don't work directly and regularly with students and their families. Instead, the programs are intended to free individual school districts from paying for expensive specialists who work with such special needs children. Such specialists are hard to find and train, and there may be only a handful of children per school district who need their services. Regional program employees can help train local teachers in areas like Braille, language development, sign language, and how to help autistic children develop communication and social skills. Letters in support of the program poured in from families around the state as lawmakers were deciding on the pieces of the education budget, to no avail. Teri Durham, a Portland lawyer, wrote to say that regional programs staff have helped her second-grade son, Jaylen, cope with basic tasks like reading and writing, despite his profound hearing loss. "I am concerned that if funding for the program is put on the backburner, the future for my son and the other children served by the program will also be set aside," she wrote. "Their futures will suffer if their current services need to be reduced in order to meet the program's increasing demand." Krista Stromme, a mother of two autistic boys from Grants Pass, testified that she didn't know how to cope with increasingly aggressive behavior from her 15-year-old son, Bradley. A staff member from Southern Oregon Regional Programs stepped in, she wrote, and was able to work with Bradley's teacher to get her son some help. "Bradley's behavior has changed dramatically since the new interventions," Stromme told lawmakers. "I have high hopes for Bradley, and while it may seem like a small thing to most people, what she did made a huge impact on this family's daily life." Autism, in particular, has been on the political radar screen, after plenty of publicity about the sharp rise in the brain disorder among Oregon children. Doctors have said the rise partly stems from an expanded understanding of the disease's symptoms, while other researchers have tried to pinpoint environmental factors. Nancy Latini, who heads the Office of Student Learning and Partnerships at the Oregon Department of Education, said she has her worries about the program's future, even as lawmakers promise to take a closer look at it during upcoming sessions. "I worry about how are we supporting the districts and the kids who need these services, as money dwindles," she said. "Does that mean that the services have become so limited that it is less meaningful?"

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Good find, Stacy. Too bad the Oregon legislature passed an increase in budget for education, except for Regional Programs. If you remember, it is the Regional Programs that often have autism specialists that go into the schools to train teachers and aides. Although Regional Programs will not be cut, increases in costs such as health insurance, pay increases, and other benefits will in effect cause a cut thus increasing case loads. That means less indirect services for students that receive services from Regional Programs.