OAKLAND -- The Oakland Unified School District is in the midst of searching for a new director of special education, the fifth one in seven years to come and go from the troubled program. The current director, Karen Mates, will be leaving at the end of June after choosing not to renew her one-year contract, which ends June 30.
Her replacement will face the daunting task of reforming an underfunded, understaffed program that is failing to meet the needs of its students.
The greatest obstacle is the district itself, which Mates said continued to ignore the special education department, making it more difficult to make the systemic changes so desperately needed.
"The district did not realize the depth of the problems," she said Wednesday at her office in the program's headquarters on West Street. "You can't build a mansion on top of swampland," she said, adding that she is hopeful that the district is now moving in the right direction.
Advocates shared her frustration -- but not her optimism.
"The district's insular and siloed approach to special education budgeting and program development has contributed to a dysfunctional system," read a letter written on behalf of the Community Advisory Committee, a state-mandated group of parents, teachers and advocates that meets monthly to advise the district about the needs of the children in the program. It is signed by committee chairwoman Cintya Molina, whose son is enrolled in special education, called Programs for Exceptional Children by Oakland Unified.
The students are routinely overlooked in even the most basic planning by the district, such as the five-year strategic plan, Molina said by telephone Wednesday. "It's hard to excuse the complete invisibility."
Mates knew better than most the depth of the problems the department faced from the start. She had been hired to audit the program that was so out of compliance with state and federal requirements that the district was in danger of being sanctioned by the California Department of Education.
She had spent 12 years in the Tamalpais Union High School District and founded Stars High School in San Leandro. Her career began in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point. Landing in Oakland was difficult despite expectations that with her expertise, she could turn around the program.
Instead, in June 2012, the month she was hired, protests erupted over proposed budget and staff cuts. The board called off budget cuts, and the district together with advocates launched a series of community meetings to discuss reform and, more importantly, hear complaints from parents struggling to get the help their children needed to progress or at least maintain their level of ability. Still, no one from outside the special education community attended the meetings, advocates said.
The district and the board were putting out other fires -- a 58 percent graduation rate, a 50 percent suspension rate of African-American students and the budget.
"That's not an excuse but it outlines the lay of the land for the past few years," OUSD Board of Education member David Kakishiba said.
In August, the district decided to change the assignments of 76 special education resource teachers, just days before reporting to work. OUSD officials assured the advisory committee that the district would start hiring more resource specialists. Instead, staffing is about eight teachers under approved levels, and funding for the upcoming year is expected to stay flat even though Mates predicted enrollment will increase from 5,244 to 5,300.
Meanwhile, the ambitious plans Mates started out with, including a strategic plan for the department, never materialized.
The department's finance director quit in January and Mates had to take over her duties, including preparing a budget to pay for 5,300 students, 277 teachers and numerous specialists. She had to step back and start with the most basic elements, which she laid out in a list that filled an entire page. First and foremost was building a team. The department also opened two new divisions, one for autism and the other for mental health, ¿and whittled down the number of delinquent state-mandated Individual Education Program, which maps out services for each child, from 897 to about 100.
But no one had a sense of buy-in, Oakland Education Association President Trish Gorham said. Either Mates wasn't communicating her ideas or no one was listening, Gorham said.
"I think she had a vision but was unable to wrestle with the nitty-gritty issues we were dealing with," she said.
The next step is June 26 when the board receives a report on the special education framework, the scaffolding that is supposed to lead to the special education strategic plan, which Mates had to abandon for more basic goals.
Mates will not be the one making the presentation that night.