Court rules in favor of Albert Lea parent

Published 6:00 pm Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday ruled in favor of a parent who stated the Albert Lea school district violated its policy on extended school year services, but raised issues regarding the approach the Minnesota Department of Education took during the process.

The ruling came after the Albert Lea School District appealed the Department of Education’s  decision last November that the district violated its policy on extended school year services.

The complaint was filed with the Department of Education in August 2016 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. Two students qualified for the program that year.

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“Because we conclude that the department’s central conclusion is supported by substantial evidence and the district was not prejudiced despite the several procedural errors by the department, we affirm,” said Judge John Rodenberg in the 14-page written decision.

The document states the the record supported the department’s conclusion that the district trained staff to apply an incorrect standard to determine whether a student was eligible for extended school-year services.

The district characterized the error as “typographical in nature,” and said it has been corrected.  

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.

Though not disputing that it failed to provide notice of a change in the provision of extended school year services, limited the types of services available to extended school year-eligible students contrary to federal law and trained staff to provide the wrong standard for eligibility, the district contended the Department of Education erred when it relied in part on the timing of IEP team meetings to conclude that the proper eligibility standard was not used and the record did not support the department’s conclusion that the district made eligibility determinations unilaterally.

The Department of Education reportedly proposed conducting an interview with the school’s special education director and requested on-site interviews with remaining interviewees.

The decision stated Superintendent Mike Funk wanted to tape the interviews, and the investigator felt ‘unsafe’ and had concern about him doing so.

Rodenberg said those statements were not supported by the record, saying the only evidence the department decided not to continue interviews was based on an “unspecified and seemingly unwarranted safety concern expressed by the assigned investigator. The department agreed to conduct additional interviews on paper. No such interviews were ever conducted.”

In a statement following the decision, Funk said the department initially identified seven district staff members to be interviewed about decisions regarding extended school year services for certain special needs students.

He stated the department “refused to allow the district to tape record the interviews, and left town without completing that interview or interviews with six other staff members who had direct knowledge of the situation.”

The Department of Education agreed to conduct interviews with the six other staff members via email, but never attempted to complete the interviews, said Funk, who added the department then stated last fall the district declined to participate in interviews in line with the department’s process.

Funk noted critical comments made about the Department of Education’s investigative process.

Mike Funk

“The court agreed that the handling of the MDE interview process was flawed, and their explanation for not conducting them was not credible,” he said. “No MDE policy exists prohibiting recording, and at no time did the district decline to do the interviews as the MDE stated in their findings.”

Funk called the decision “significant” for Albert Lea and other districts in the state.

“The practice that the MDE was attempting to impose on the district regarding the recording of interviews was inconsistent with state statute and MDE policy, as noted by the court,” he said. “We will be sharing this information with other districts in Minnesota so that they are aware of the processes that the Minnesota Department of Education must follow when conducting interviews,” he said.

Following the decision, Hoelz said parents should not hesitate to file a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Education if they feel the district is taking an action that is harming their child.

“Now we know that kids aren’t going to be shorted that extended school year anymore,” she said.

In the Department of Education findings last November, 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 in summer 2016.

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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