Independent review recommends Edmonds School District address special education program concerns

David Bateman presents third-party findings about the district during a Zoom meeting.

A company hired to conduct a third-party review of special education in the Edmonds School District recommended the district take several steps to address concerns by teachers and staff about poor communication and lack of support for their work.

The district hosted a special session last month via Zoom to review the company’s findings. The April 18 meeting was held a few hours prior to another meeting about districtwide budget cuts. 

The study was initiated after numerous special education teachers and staff complained about feeling abandoned by the administration. They said that the district did not communicate with them when they asked for support, disregarded their feedback when establishing and canceling programs, and would not respond to emails for weeks or even months. Others spoke about the district’s workplace being toxic and that some felt they were being retaliated against for airing their grievances about workplace culture.

To understand these concerns, the school board contracted with the American Institute for Research (AIR) to conduct a third-party investigation of “special education practices that impact climate, staffing and communication” within the Edmonds School District. The firm was paid $39,959 in September 2022 for their services. 

AIR conducted seven focus groups, 10 interviews and a staff survey in which 1,385 of 3,023 Edmonds School District employees responded. Information was then divided up to compare the responses of special education personnel to the rest of the district. It also analyzed other information such as staffing organizational charts, district policy manuals and a review of unfilled positions.

Approximately 165 virtual attendees, including school board staff, watched AIR employee David Bateman present the study’s results. Bateman specified that legal compliance was not the focus of the study and was not under review. 

Polling results confirmed earlier complaints of poor communication between the administration and educational staff, a widespread fear that the district was not legally compliant with state and federal law, low morale and a lack of district resources. Respondents also expressed concern over staff turnover, a lack of balance for staff placement and their own personal safety. While poll respondents generally said they were not listened to by the administration, special education staff expressed this most frequently. 

AIR issued a list of priorities for the district to focus on.

  1. Communication 
  2. A review of administrative structure
  3. Ensuring policies and procedures are clear and accessible
  4. Administrators should visit classrooms to better understand them
  5. Relationship building between administration and staff

Bateman also suggested specific actions the Edmonds School District could take to address staff concerns, including establishing a cross-district advisory committee for special education to work on priority concerns. The committee would be composed of special education staff from a variety of programs to ensure comprehensive feedback is received. 

Suggested assignments for this committee include developing a special education manual of standard operating procedures, making a plan to improve district communication, creating a standardized curriculum to distribute to new staff and designing processes to manage individual students.

Regarding improvements to the district’s structure, AIR recommended that a special education director position be implemented to oversee the entire special education section. This would create a clear hierarchy within the special education department and AIR advised that the role should be filled by an individual with direct experience in special education. The director would collaborate with the committee on IEP development and special education budgets while maintaining direct access to the superintendent, the AIR report said.

Also recommended were communication strategies that begin with the structural changes created by the director position and special education committee but also involve administrative behavioral changes and initiatives to improve communication. Changes involve setting expectations for administrators that require them to respond to emails and calls and make visits to special education classrooms. 

The polling results indicated that special education staff did not feel respected for their work and adjustments to workplace culture could help remedy this and other toxic traits identified by the study. Adjustments include understanding and acknowledging the workload for a special educator and shifting away from the belief that certain positions aren’t “as hard” or are less valuable than others. The report also recommended the district enforce the rules consistently when it comes to both issues and personnel.

AIR will be issuing a final report later this month. You can view the presentation on YouTube. Details about the special education review can be found in this AIR presentation and the Edmonds School District website.

— By Jasmine Contreras-Lewis

    1. From the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington State:

      Special education is specially designed instruction that addresses the unique needs of a student eligible to receive special education services. Special education is provided at no cost to parents and includes the related services a student needs to access her/his educational program.

      Early Stages (ages 0-2): Early intervention services are available to children who have disabilities and/or developmental delays. The Early Support for Infants and Toddlers(link is external) (ESIT) program provides services to eligible children and families in a variety of settings – in their homes, in child care, in preschool or school programs, and in their communities.

      School Age (ages 3-21): Students with disabilities who are determined eligible for special education and related services are entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Services are provided to eligible students according to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in preschools, elementary, and secondary schools, or other appropriate settings.

      More at:,access%20her%2Fhis%20educational%20program.

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