Parents worry over shift in special ed classes

Parents of special education students in Atascadero recently voiced concerns over the way classroom aides were hired — saying they feared their students will be left with a lower-quality program.

In October, the Atascadero Unified School District finalized a decision to transfer control of most special education classes from the county Office of Education back to the district by July.

The move will affect 65 students. The district will take control of eight classes of severely handicapped students, two classes of preschool students, two classes of emotionally disturbed students and one autism program class.

Instructional aides perform a vast array of duties including preparing behavioral plans, assisting with daily activities in classrooms and working one-on-one with students who need additional help.

The school district must hire 28 aides. It is first offering the positions to the county Office of Education employees who now hold them.

Parents say that they fear a decrease in pay and fewer options for benefits will prevent many of the aides from making the move.

Behavioral aides can earn as much as $17.62 an hour and qualify for health benefits by working a minimum of four hours a day at the county Office of Education.

However, the same position as offered by the Atascadero school district caps at $14.05 an hour and requires employees to work 6.5 hours per day to qualify for the same benefits.

“Our biggest concern is that in an attempt to save money, the district will inadvertently sacrifice some important qualities of the existing program,” Rebecca Anastasio said.

Anastasio has a 17-year-old daughter with Down syndrome and autism who requires special assistance by aides in the classroom.

“A lot of the aides in the classroom have been with the teachers for years and they are in-sync with each other,” Anastasio said. “What will be lost is a seamless partnership.”

The school district agreed earlier this week after hearing parent concerns to re-evaluate the job description of the aides. The district has also extended the application deadline from Dec. 28 to Jan. 15 to allow time for the job to be discussed and negotiated by the classified employees’ union.

The Paso Robles school district is also transferring eight special education classes back to district control next school year.

“Our goal was, as much as possible, to keep the current classes intact for the continuity of the students and parents,” said Greig Welch, Paso assistant superintendent of personnel. “We also realize that the employees coming to our district in this transfer have a tremendous amount of training and specialized skills to work with the programs they are in.”

The district must hire 15 classroom aides, also called severely handicapped Para educators, to assist with the classes. The district increased the number of hours for 14 of the 15 aides to allow them to qualify for benefits, Welch said.

Two years ago, during the 2007-08 school year, Paso took two special education programs back from the county office of education, said Welch. The four aides who transitioned with those classes became 6.5-hour employees to receive full benefits, he said.

“So based on our past experience, two years ago, and the time we felt was needed to maintain the best possible support for the students and teachers, we made the decision to move 14 out of 15 Para educators to 6.5 hours,” Welch said.

Atascadero parents hope their school district will make a similar offer after reconsidering the positions.

“I am hoping that the district decides it is worth their time, effort and money to keep these aides because change is extremely hard for many of these kids,” Anastasio said. “We were promised a program that was as good if not better, and to do that we need a level of continuity.”