Newly announced cuts to special education in Chicago spurred parents to gather for a special town hall meeting Tuesday night to discuss the potential impact of the public school district's latest budget move.
Amber Smock, director of advocacy for Access Living, described the budget cuts as "morally wrong," adding that it demonstrates school officials' lack of the creativity needed to find other ways to curb expenses.
"The Chicago Public Schools budget crisis facing students with disabilities is one of the worst we've seen in ten years," said Smock. "The fact that CPS [Chicago Public Schools] has chosen to make most of their budget cuts on the backs of students with disabilities is unfair and incomprehensible."
The meeting, organized by Access Living, was in response to the September 29 Chicago Board of Education meeting, where many parents say they felt their concerns went unheard. Officials from various advocacy organizations attended the event to inform parents of their rights and address concerns.
Zoubida Pasha, parent advocate for the Family Resource Center on Disability, spoke at the meeting. She highlighted the need for parents to understand their children's Individualized Education Program, or IEP, and make sure their child's unique educational needs are met.
"The ultimate goal of our service and support is what we call the star," said Pasha. "The star is where children with disabilities reach their maximum potential and independence in life. We need to support the children in school from early childhood when they enter the system up to the time they leave high school."
Smock criticized CPS CEO Forrest Claypool for saying CPS would handle the cuts to special education on a case-by-case basis.
"Access Living feels the commitment of Chicago Public Schools to students with disabilities should be system-wide, not on a case-by-case basis," said Smock.
Over the summer, CPS announced $42 million in budget cuts for special needs services, though it has since appointed 21 special education teachers and 61 paraprofessionals to schools in an effort to meet students' needs.
At the end of September, CPS announced another $12 million in budget cuts, equaling a loss of 69 teachers and assistants. Due to the backlash that occurred after the announcement, the district decided to conduct a month-long review process, allowing school principals to appeal the cuts until November 2.
Cindy Ok, a parent of two children at Jacqueline B. Vaughn Occupational High School, a special education school located in Portage Park, was also at the town hall meeting. Ok explained how her children's school principal successfully appealed the first round of special ed cuts over the summer.
"Our principal, his case manager, and other support staff went through every students IEP, and through the minutes, and gave data to the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services," said Ok. "This showed we need a certain amount of people to adequately provide the services to meet the students' IEP needs."
"That took well over a week, and they worked into the night to do that. But our principal was one of the only principals able to get back all of the positions because of doing this."
Rachel Brady, staff attorney for Equip for Equality, gave parents insight on the legality of the cuts. Her organization has been involved in putting together class action complaints in the past.
"We can't file a class action without individual cases that would make up a potential class," said Brady. "So if you know of a student, your child or a maybe your friend's children that may be affected by these cuts, send them to us so we can do intake and gather information on that student. Then we can figure out where to go from there."
Aricka Flowers contributed to this story.