Tonight: Tulsa school board to consider breaking law that helps special-needs kids

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Tonight the board of Tulsa Public Schools will discuss whether to join Jenks, Union, Bixby, Broken Arrow and other area school districts in disobeying a new state law, HB 3393, the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act, which provides scholarships to meet the special educational needs of students with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other disabilites. From the text of HB 3393, as signed by the governor:

The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program is established to provide a scholarship to a private school of choice for students with disabilities for whom an individualized education program (IEP) in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has been developed. Scholarships shall be awarded beginning with the 2010-2011 school year.

The parent or legal guardian of a public school student with a disability may exercise their parental option and request to have a Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship awarded for the child to enroll in and attend a private school in accordance with this section....

School districts are required to award the scholarship if the applying student was at a public school the previous year, and the student has been accepted at an eligible private school. The amount of the scholarship is the private school tuition or the amount of state aid and local revenue allocated for that student, which ever is lower. The school district can retain 5% of the scholarship amount to cover the cost of administering the program.

On his blog, the House author of the bill, Rep. Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City), rebuts the claims made by the school districts:

The cost of the scholarships is covered in the law. The Tulsa area districts act as if the funding for the student stops when they transfer on a scholarship and that the district must find the money to pay the scholarship on their own. That is not the case.

The reports that Doug Mann, the school board attorney for Broken Arrow, claims that HB 3393 "can get very expensive very quickly." The story goes on to quote Mann, "The fact of the matter is that the program that that child was in still has to be funded but it now has less funding for that program."

What districts are not mentioning is that the money for the scholarship is fully funded. The district keeps 5% of the scholarship amount to cover administrative costs. In addition to that, the district can continue to count the transferring student for funding purposes for up to two years after the transfer to allow them to absorb their fixed costs. Added to all this money comes less expense because they have one less student.

The reality here is that school districts lose the funding for each student that transfers out of their district after two years even if the student transfers to another school district or to a private or home school setting. However, under HB 3393 the districts retains 5% of the scholarship amount that they would not receive for any other transfer.

House Bill 3393 is a win-win. School districts are protected financially and will have smaller class room sizes with each student that transfers with a scholarship. Most importantly the children benefit because they have more options so they can find and receive the very best education services for their particular special need.

Rep. Nelson has been blogging up a storm on this issue, publishing emails from parents of special-needs kids who tell of their struggles with these very school districts; for example, this email from a Jenks parent:

Jenks is currently being audited by the Office of Civil Rights for violating ADA laws and a list of Special Education Laws that they are in noncompliance. ...

Jenks also has a reputation for interpreting the law so that they don't have to offer services and/or water the services down so it is very minimal. They also are in violation of offering the same services to all students rather than individualized as required by law.

Jenks spends a unbelievable amount of money to keep the law firm on retainer because Jenks does not follow the law. I wonder what the public would say if they knew how much of our schools tax dollars went to pay the law firm? If the tax payers had a say in whether that money went to the law firm or the general education fund I know they would say the money should go to our kids! It is disgusting how much money the law firm gets.

It is ridiculous that Jenks insists that they educate and care about their special education kids. Since we [have been in Jenks] my [child] has regressed two years. They have such low expectations and do very little to increase their intelligence and more to teach the kids "life skills".

One law firm, Rosenstein Fist Ringold, provides legal services to Tulsa, Jenks, Broken Arrow, Union, Bixby, and, until Monday, Skiatook. The Skiatook board voted 3-2 to dismiss the firm and seek new representation, following a grand jury recommendation. The firm has represented the Tulsa district going back at least as far as the 1970 Federal racial desegregation lawsuit. An attorney for the firm, Doug Mann, has said that he is "expecting -- almost hoping" that lawsuits will be filed against the school districts over the scholarship issue, according to a Fox 23 report.

One of the attorneys at RFR is Matthew Ballard. Keith Ballard is superintendent of the Tulsa district, and his bio mentions a son named Matthew who is an attorney in Tulsa.

The Tulsa school board meets tonight, Wednesday, October 13, 2010, at 5:30 pm, at the Education Service Center, north of 31st St. on New Haven Ave. (New Haven is the traffic light between Harvard and Yale.) If you care about giving children with disabilities the education they need, or if you just care about the school district spending money on education instead of lawyers, show up and let the school board know how you feel.

MORE: The State Department of Education's page on the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program, with a list of participating schools.

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Tonight’s Tulsa School Board meeting is centered around HB3393, the Lindsay Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program act. First a presentation by Attorney Doug Mann and Super Keith Ballard, then the mandatory comments from... Read More


Ted D said:

I hope that if they follow the BA school board's lead, that there are severe repercussions for Tulsa's School Board. They are no above the law and they need to be taught that.

Shadow6 said:

Michael, you don't have any use for Tulsa Public Schools at all, do you?

mark said:

michael -

I'm honestly confused by this.

I've always been under the impression that parents of kids with serious disabilities want those kids to STAY IN the public school systems because those districts MUST take them (regardless of cost) and thus have developed the expensive special education infrastructure necessary for meeting that responsibility. Similarly, I've come to understand that private schools do not have expansive special ed infrastructures, and thus are not a logical choice for parents of the truly disabled.

So I must ask, who is this scholarship designed to benefit? The only logical answer I come up with is that it is a program designed only for the very mildly disabled; e.g., kids that might in our school days been viewed as just a little "slow" or "withdrawn", but today may arrive with a formal DSM IV psychological diagnosis.

If that's true, then I can understand the school districts' concern.

What am I missing here?

I think your assumptions are incorrect, Mark, based on news reports of the comments made by parents who have attended the school board meetings where this issue has been discussed, and the stories that parents have communicated to Rep. Nelson, which he's published on his blog. The picture that they paint is that, despite the resources of these districts (remember, the list includes huge suburban districts like Jenks, Union, and BA with a large, affluent tax base and patrons who routinely approve millage increases and bond issues), the districts are doing the minimum required for students with serious developmental disabilities. For these kids, their ability to function in the future depends on aggressive, individualized intervention at an early age. Meanwhile, eight Tulsa-area private schools have already been approved by the State Department of Education to accept and work with these students -- Metro Christian, Victory Christian, Summit Christian, Immanuel Lutheran, Town and Country, Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Pius, and St. Catherine Catholic Schools.

The new Oklahoma law refers to the 2004 Federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. You can read here IDEA's definition of disability, which includes autism, deafness, blindness, mental retardation, orthopedic impairment (such as cerebral palsy), and traumatic brain injury. To qualify under IDEA (and thus under the new Oklahoma law), a child must have a disability and must require special education.

Bob said:

Michael's article mentions that the law firm of Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold represents the Tulsa, Jenks, Broken Arrow, Union, Bixby, and Skiatook school districts, and has represented TPS since at least 1970.

I see Atty. Doug Mann's name frequently in newspaper articles concerning litigation or investigations involving some or all of these school boards, specifically recalling B.A. and Skiatook.

Does Mr. Mann hope that the school districts that his law firm represents will be sued over their willful disobediance of the new state law HB3393, so that his law firm can build a mountain of billable hours in excess of their retainer?

I have been told that this same law firm represents about 1/2 of the school districts in the entire state.

Why is that?

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 13, 2010 12:10 PM.

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