Albert Lea School District appealing finding of violations

Published 4:15 pm Monday, January 23, 2017

The Albert Lea School District is appealing a Minnesota Department of Education decision issued in November that concluded the district violated its policy on extended school year services.

The complaint was filed with the Department of Education in August by Anne Hoelz — a mother of a child with special needs who did not receive extended school year services in summer 2016 — because four of the seven students in the functional skills program at Halverson Elementary School were denied extended school year services last summer.

The district cut physical and occupational therapies from the extended school year program because only two students attended the program, Hoelz said. The district’s special education coordinator, Tami Alphs, said the therapies were not completely cut for extended school year services.

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“The four students that did not qualify last summer  — including my son  — have a range of disabilities that did qualify them under the statute, yet they were denied services,” Hoelz said.

In bringing forward the complaint, Hoelz alleged that the district failed to follow requirements in determining student needs for extended school year services. The complaint alleged that the district made decisions without consulting student individual education plan teams. According to the complaint, the decision to deny services was based only on student progress during the 2015-16 school year.

Superintendent Mike Funk said the district is appealing the Department of Education decision because it did not comply with its legal obligations when investigating the complaint. He questioned why the department did not obtain input from current staff members.

“During the investigation process, the district noted the importance of creating a record of the Minnesota Department of Education’s investigation so a reviewing body could determine whether the investigation was conducted properly,” Funk said.

When the district asked to record staff interviews, the Department of Education refused to interview staff or have any record made of its actions, he said.

“The Minnesota Department of Education later assured the district that it would consider the staff’s input through written correspondence, but the Department of Education did not adhere to that assurance. The Department of Education’s failure to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation or make any meaningful attempt to obtain the perspective of current staff members who attended the individualized education program team meetings resulted in findings that are inaccurate and capricious.”

Funk said the Department of Education’s investigation practices in the case raise “serious concerns that warrant close scrutiny by the courts and the Legislature.”

“Additionally, MDE’s decision in this case contains legal interpretations that contradict MDE’s legal interpretations in other cases.”

Funk said the district’s special education director, Tami Alphs, will work with parents, teachers and other members of its special education teams so the needs of special education students continue to be met.

Hoelz said she understands Funk does not like how the Department of Education’s investigation went, but she thinks it does not change the fact that the district disregarded state statutes regarding its policy on extended school year services.

Hoelz said she is concerned that Funk is wasting school resources by filing the appeal.

She said in December she was pleased with the department’s findings.

“I’m glad that the children will be able to receive the services that were taken away from them,” she said.

Hoelz said she felt distressed when the district told her and other parents that their children did not qualify for the services.

In Department of Education findings dated Nov. 23, state Director of Compliance and Assistance Marikay Litzau ruled that the district was in violation when it failed to determine if all students were in need of extended school year services consistent with state statutes.

Litzau ruled the district failed to provide prior written notice of the change in the provision with services and failed to let individual IEP teams decide whether extended school year services were necessary for the provision of free appropriate public education last summer.

The district “unilaterally limited the type of related services to be provided to students receiving extra school year services during the summer of 2016,” Litzau wrote.  

Litzau ordered the district to submit in writing its revised extended school year services eligibility process to the Department of Education within 15 days, and provide training to special education staff and administrators within 30 days regarding the revised eligibility process and obligations under statutes.

The district was also ordered to hold individualized education program team meetings for five of the students to determine eligibility for extended school year services and services within the program and meet other corrective action measures.  

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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