School board candidates talk special ed

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Two of five candidates for the Indian River County School Board say, if elected, they will support hiring more special education teachers and assistants to remedy a shortage in the district recently discovered by a consulting firm.

Candidates gave their opinions on special education funding and other topics at a recent forum.

Four of the five candidates running for two seats on the school board were invited to the Indian River County Republicans for Life forum, held on Friday.

Missing from the lineup was Democrat Stephen Sczurek, who was excluded because the organization’s rules do not allow candidates from other parties to participate, moderator Roger Ball said, although the school board election is non-partisan.

Current school board member Claudia Jimenez, representing District 5, which includes much of the barrier island, is not running again after serving for eight years. Tiffany Justice and John Kim are vying for her seat.

Matthew McCain, representing District 3, which includes south county and most of the mainland portion of Vero Beach, is also stepping down after serving eight years. Laura Zorc, Stephen Sczurek and Douglas Wight are competing for his seat.

Although representatives on the school board must come from five different areas in the county to ensure fair representation, electors vote for all seats. Therefore a strong special-interest faction could dominate at the polls, packing the board with like-minded candidates.

Special education may be such a faction. Zorc, Kim and Justice said parents with children who have special needs are the most active politically and contact them the most.

The school district receives about $10 million a year from the state and federal government to provide special services, but how the money is spent is largely up to the district.

The preliminary results of a study from District Management Council, a consulting firm based in Boston, show the school district has 30 percent fewer special education teachers and 40 percent fewer special education teaching assistants than comparable school districts.

The study also reveals Indian River County students with special needs who take standard tests perform well below the state’s average.

Wight, a teacher for 27 years in Indian River County, said his son has aged out of the program, but has Asperger’s syndrome and went to Wabasso School, which has a concentration of special education services.

He attributed the shortage of teachers to a recruitment problem, but was unable to explain how he arrived at this assumption, how the special education program is funded and how special education teachers and assistants are hired.

Justice said she wanted to wait until the District Management Council study is farther along before giving an opinion on whether more special education staff needs to be hired. The for-profit company was hired in January under a three-year contract for about $50,000 a year.

She noted the district is “not meeting the needs of minority students with special needs.”

Kim and Zorc said there are too few special education teachers and they would support hiring sufficient numbers to mainstream and integrate more special education students into the school system.

Zorc noted that the rise of autism requires more be spent on special education.

School personnel are too top-heavy, Kim said, and money needed to hire teachers could come from lowering the number of administrators. There are 48 fewer teachers and nine more administrators than in 2004, he said.

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