Educators working in the Edmonds School District’s special education program and their supporters came before the virtual meeting of the Edmonds School Board Tuesday to express their concerns about the program, stating in a letter that they “are feeling completely abandoned” by district administrators.
During the meeting’s public comment period, two community members took turns reading from a letter critical of the district’s special education program.
The letter was signed by nearly 350 special educators and supporters, the speakers said, but the names of those signing were omitted because staff fear they will lose their jobs for speaking out against the administration.
The letter stated that drastic decisions are being made in the program without any input from teachers or staff. When staff have tried to voice their concerns, they have been reprimanded or ignored, the letter added.
“We are feeling completely abandoned by administrators,” the letter stated. “Teachers get almost no direct contact with district special education staff. Office hours are scheduled and then canceled without notice. Email is the only way to communicate with our administrators and can remain unanswered for weeks or even months. Entire programs have been changed, dissolved or created without asking staff for any of the input which could make those changes successful.”
The letter said the administration’s failure to include teachers in decision-making is harming both the entire program and the students it promises to help. The letter also included complaints about the administration ignoring the unsafe levels of staffing in multiple classrooms.
“If equity for all is truly a belief in the mission of Edmonds School District, our special education students should be prioritized and the leadership practices and student services should be closely reexamined,” the letter said.
To address the stated concerns, the letter asked the district to begin listening sessions to hear the issues and discuss solutions; to develop “transparent, written procedures for shared decision making; to hold regularly scheduled face-to-face meetings with administrators; and to ensure that administrators follow district policies to respond to emails within 48 hours.”
A teacher, Jennifer Martin, also spoke during public comments about the state of the special education program.
“Special Ed leadership has been inconsistent, unresponsive and retaliatory when disagreed with,” said Martin. “They have created a toxic work environment at the [Edmonds School District] which has led to the resignation of qualified administrators, office personnel, teachers and paraeducators. Did you know today, three staff in one class have resigned and given their two-weeks’ notice?”
All three speakers pleaded with the school board to evaluate what has been going on in the special education program and urged them to do something about it before the whole program collapses.
Edmonds School District Communications and Public Relations Manager Harmony Weinberg said Thursday the district is likely to issue a response to the letter next week.
In other business, the district’s board of directors Tuesday night agreed with a district plan to remove both indoor and outdoor mask mandates starting March 14, and they also decided to return to in-person school board meetings.
Superintendent Dr. Gustavo Balderas began by requesting patience and kindness as the board discussed difficult topics. The district has been understaffed since the beginning of the pandemic, and Balderas said staff have been doing the best they can in these difficult times with the limited resources available to them.
“We don’t have people to change out [of tough situations] but we do have the people in positions to step in,” he said.
Every board member said they were in favor of removing the indoor mask mandates on Monday, March 14. Some, however, had some reservations about it.
Director Keith Smith said he understood why the district was following guidelines, but he didn’t understand why the guidelines themselves were changing.
“This just seems like a weird-moving thing where the absolute numbers don’t seem to matter to officials anymore,” Smith said. “Getting rid of your masks right now feels like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm just because you’re not getting wet right now.”
Directors Carin Chase and Gary Noble both want to make sure students who choose to continue wearing masks do not get bullied for it.
“[We need to] make sure that it remains very, very acceptable to wear a mask. I don’t want people to be harassed,” Noble said.
Student representative Isabel Vergara Ramos thanked the board for taking students’ personal choices into consideration. However, she said that most of the students she had spoken to were planning to continue to wear a mask through the end of the school year regardless of whether the mandate was lifted, so she hoped bullying would not become an issue.
Also during the meeting, Weinberg announced that volunteers will be allowed to return to schools after two long years of being absent. The application process for those wishing to volunteer is set to launch early next week, with volunteers coming back to classrooms right after spring break. Background checks will be conducted for all applicants, as well as vaccine verifications.
The board voted to return to in-person school board meetings, starting with the board’s retreat March 15 and its March 22 business meeting.
“I do not think there is a world in which we can have masks optional in school and then say that we are going to work remotely,” Smith said.
Smith suggested the meetings continue in a hybrid format so viewers who are uncomfortable being in a crowded room with others who are maskless can still participate. Superintendent Balderas said all school board meetings will continue to be streamed online for viewers’ safety and comfort.
Some board members said they are excited to come back but will still be opting to wear masks and remain six feet apart.
“I’m ready to come back,” Director Deborah Kilgore said. “I’ve been ready to come back for a long time.”
— By Lauren Reichenbach