Tuesday's Palo Alto school board meeting got heated as parents voiced their anger over plans to eliminate programs for students with moderate to severe disabilities at two elementary schools and consolidate services on other campuses.
Over a dozen speakers addressed the board on the topic, with the bulk of the comments coming from Ohlone Elementary School parents upset at the district's plan.
As the board discussed the issue, audience members at times interrupted to object to what board members were saying, with parents interjecting "That's not true" and "How do you know?" There were also tears and laughter from some in the crowd as the board and staff members spoke.
The controversy arose when administrators told parents last week that starting next school year, the moderate/severe special education program at Ohlone and Escondido elementary schools would move to Nixon and Barron Park elementary schools, respectively. The announcement came as a surprise to many parents.
All four schools currently only have one moderate/severe special education class, serving kids across all grade levels. The change will allow Nixon and Barron Park to each have two classes, one for students in second grade and below and the other for those in third through fifth grade. District leaders said the change has long been considered and is in the best interests of students.
Existing moderate/severe programs at Fairmeadow, El Carmelo and Walter Hays will remain. The district's other district elementary schools already don't have a moderate/severe program. All elementary schools will continue to have programs for students with mild to moderate disabilities.
Parents say that closing the moderate/severe classes at Ohlone and Escondido will create a difficult transition for students, disrupt families and deprive the rest of the school of the diversity that these disabled students bring to the campus. They also object to the lack of parental input on the decision.
Ohlone parent Marianne Marar questioned why the mental health impacts of the move on students, parents and siblings hadn't been discussed, and asked whether the "glaring systemic inequities" of consolidating the moderate/severe programs was clear to the board.
"One thing I know is that the panic and fear you've added to the shoulders of the parents who will now have to bear the brunt of this move is exhausting, isolating and traumatic," Marar said. "I urge you, this is an opportunity. Don't just talk-the-talk on equity. It's performative and unsettling. Our kids deserve more."
Parents expressed particular anger over eliminating moderate/severe programs at two schools with choice programs, which require parents to apply for their children to attend. Escondido has a Spanish dual-immersion choice program. Ohlone is a choice school with a focus on an "open school" philosophy and has a working farm on campus.
The board's review of the consolidation plan for special education was put on the meeting agenda as a staff report, not as an action item that the board could vote on. Board President Jennifer DiBrienza told the Weekly that the decision about how to structure the special education program was one for administrators to make, not the board. According to DiBrienza, the board is in charge of setting district policy, not making programmatic decisions, and further that the special education restructuring didn't impact the budget.
Amanda Boyce, one of the district's special education directors, told the Weekly after the meeting that district staff do not plan to make any changes to the consolidation plan.
"The need to enhance our Special Education classrooms and likewise strengthen teacher/student engagement — thus improving the learning of our moderate/severe students — must remain first," Boyce said in an email.
While the board members made no decision at Tuesday's meeting, they largely backed the decision to prioritize split-grade classes for students with moderate to severe disabilities, although some board members raised concerns about how the decision was made.
Shana Segal, who was elected to the board in November, questioned district staff on how families were included before the decision was made. Boyce said that the plans were shared at a Jan. 23 meeting of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education in Palo Alto, though the names of the impacted schools weren't announced. The CAC, a volunteer group that advocates for families of students in the special education program, was supportive of the idea, Boyce said.
While Segal said that she supported moving to split-grade classes and believed administrators were well-intentioned, she objected to the lack of parent involvement in the process.
"What seems to have been forgotten in some decision-making affecting Palo Alto schools, including this recent restructuring, is that the voices, experience and knowledge of parents who have children in Palo Alto schools need to be heard in a timely way in order that they have an opportunity to contribute effectively," Segal said.
Board member Shounak Dharap asked why the district didn't phase the decision into effect over time, so that current students could stay at their existing schools. Boyce responded that a phased approach would mean fewer and fewer students would be enrolled in Ohlone and Escondido's moderate/severe program over time, losing their chance for collaboration with other students. Boyce previously told the Weekly that there are currently eight students in Ohlone's moderate/severe special education program and nine at Escondido.
Todd Collins, who was participating in the board meeting via Zoom due to illness, spoke about his own past experience as a parent of a student in a moderate/severe classroom. While he said that he empathized with the experiences of parents experiencing disruption, he was in favor of the change.
"The idea of a K-5 classroom, both for the children and for the teacher, is mind-boggling to me," Collins said. "That seems like a task that's not likely to end well, and I certainly see the need to move to a situation where we have more focused classrooms to serve mod/severe kids more effectively."
Jesse Ladomirak also favored the change, noting that while she empathizes with parents' concerns, she believes the focus needs to be on what's best for kids as a whole and that the switch to split-grade classes was "long overdue."
"If we don't move forward, or if we delay doing so, or if we modify it somehow, I'm really concerned that we're intentionally depriving those vulnerable students of a change that we know is best for them — and I can't do that," Ladomirak said.
Her comments drew opposition from the audience, particularly when she said that if the situation were reversed and the district were moving Nixon instead, the board wouldn't hear from "any Ohlone parents" and instead it would have been all Nixon parents who would have shown up.
DiBrienza stepped in to tell the audience to give Ladomirak the floor, noting that the portion of the meeting set aside of community comment had passed.
While the vast majority of public comments came from Ohlone parents opposed to the move, a couple spoke in favor. CAC Chair Rika Yamamoto told the board that while she acknowledges the impacts of the change, she asked the district to "continue to work collaboratively" with families on the restructuring.
Boyce told the board that the district would offer support for affected families, including allowing parents to request a transfer for their student to attend any of the five schools that are expected to have a moderate/severe special education program next year. Transportation is also available to take children to and from school. She told the Weekly that she is also open to meeting with any of the impacted families to discuss plans for their children.