It wasn’t funding issues or burnout that made Sharon Klose take an early exit from Shawnee Mission School District’s special education department.
The behavioral specialist had worked there for decades and was considered highly qualified. But then the district announced it would restructure the behavior team, and the veteran was abruptly reassigned to a new role working with children with multiple and severe handicaps, something she felt “extremely underqualified” for.
Klose said she and other educators also had concerns that the department was growing mercurial, demanding and vindictive after now-former superintendent Jim Hinson began his tenure in 2013 and later named Jackie Chatman as director of special education. They say protocols implemented from the top flirted with violating Kansas law, a concern that was substantiated in a small number of cases in a 2017 state probe.
Yet many who questioned the district decisions were yelled at or reprimanded, Klose said.
Parents grew frustrated as longtime staff members were shuffled to other schools.
“That’s no way to build trust,” Klose said. “Our sped (special education) kids are the most vulnerable kids, and a lot of time parents don’t know what to do.”
And so after the 2016 school year, Klose retired at the age of 60, and at least five other behavioral specialists left with her. Now she works as an advocate for parents who need help navigating special education services in the district.
Klose is one of more than 150 Shawnee Mission special education employees who have resigned or retired since the 2014-15 school year from a department that currently includes 310 certified employees.
This year, 30 employees — including three of the four top-paid coordinators directly under the special education director — resigned. Nine others retired.
The vacancies have prompted alarm among some parents, community members and staff who see a talent drain prompted by low morale and distrust in leadership.
“We are witnessing our very own teacher walkout in slow motion,” Shawnee Mission parent Arcie Rothrock, who is also a Mission City Council member, warned school board members at a May meeting.
Critics have pointed to the current special education director, Jackie Chatman, as a main source of the problems. Chatman, who is set to retire in 2019, announced earlier this year that she would step down into a new assistant director role so that new superintendent Michael Fulton can appoint his own director.
She told The Star she would serve as director until Fulton chooses her successor but is not involved in the hiring process.
But Fulton, who joined the district July 2, has yet to name a new leader, and many believe the department can only function properly with the right hire.
District spokesman David Smith told The Star that Fulton is spending his first few weeks in the district exploring how best to meet “the needs of all students, including special education students.”
Chatman says a period of transition following Hinson’s 2017 resignation has been hard on all district employees, including special ed staff.
“Whenever there is such a large transition as starting with a new superintendent that really impacts the teachers as well as the administration ... you have to ask, ‘Is it low morale or is just the uncertainty of knowing what it’s going to be like with a new superintendent?’
“There’s a real level of uncertainty wondering what’s going to happen next.”
And for her part, Chatman said many of the claims about the department are unsubstantiated, and special ed by its nature is a tough environment.
School districts across the country struggle with special education turnover, fueled by stagnant pay, ever-increasing paperwork and burgeoning workloads. And in Kansas, funding deemed inadequate by the state Supreme Court has meant less money to hire teachers and purchase necessary supplies.
But in the past year, many say problems in Shawnee Mission go beyond funding and resource issues.
“We’ve been through very thin times of funding. … We all were a team and we worked together and we felt like we were supported,” Klose said. “They don’t feel supported at all.”
Rothrock was one of four parents who in May spoke passionately to board members about special education problems ranging from the rollout of a cumbersome electronic system for the individualized education programs (IEPs) that determine a child’s care, practices they believe are not compliant with state law and the loss of valuable educators.
“I want to inform you as a way for us to work together that the former sped employees, parents and outside agencies are mobilizing to make sure our students’ rights are not violated any longer,” said parent Renee Wasinger of Overland Park. She told board members that the district had not informed her that some of her children’s services were discontinued and had failed to correct information in their plans for services.
In addition, a dozen former employees, parents and current staff have — in both interviews with The Star and in public forums — shared concerns that teachers have endured verbal abuse and unrealistic workloads, and have been encouraged to cut corners by Chatman and other leaders.
Some say staff members fear questioning authority will cost them their jobs.
Chatman, who spent the bulk of her career leading special services departments in Missouri school districts, took charge of Shawnee Mission’s special education department in July 2015, a year after she began in the district as a special education coordinator.
Her promotion coincided with the two-year anniversary of Hinson’s leadership. Though the former superintendent was initially hailed as a change agent for a district in need of modernization, his authoritative style rubbed many the wrong way and created a fractured relationship between administrators and teachers, who grew mistrustful of leadership they saw as dismissive and detached from their needs.
Critics have lodged similar complaints at Chatman and say new leadership is critical to the health of the department.
“One more year of lost trust with staff and parents is another year we’re not going to keep and retain staff in Shawnee Mission,” said a former employee who asked for anonymity because she works in special education for another district.
Chatman said the swift changes made by the district as she began to lead the department were hard on employees. During her tenure, the district expanded programs for gifted students and gave teachers less flexibility to deviate from the chosen curriculum. She said some employees may have felt that district administrators weren’t listening when they came forward with concerns about initiatives that leadership implemented anyway.
The district also rolled out a new electronic IEP module for the paperwork that special education employees are required to file.
The new module, accessed through an online portal called Skyward, was cumbersome, confusing and took two years to fully implement. And Chatman says she was not permitted to explore other options.
“The teachers do not understand how Skyward came about,” Chatman said. “They really do believe I picked Skyward. I didn’t. It was not my decision. I tried to make it as user-friendly as I could for the teachers. But there are limitations to what you can do when you are being told to do a system as compared to when you go out and try to find the best system.”
She denied the assertion that her employees were ever threatened by her administrators.
“It’s unfortunate that people felt afraid with their jobs,” Chatman told The Star. “Nobody was ever threatened with a job ever. There was maybe some conversations about, ‘This is the way it’s going to be. If this isn’t something that you think you can do, maybe this isn’t the right match for you any longer…’
“It was never like if you don’t do this, you are going to get fired.”
A problem with turnover?
According to district human resources documents, at least 158 certified employees have left the special education department since the 2014-15 school year — 98 resigned and 60 retired — meaning roughly half of the department’s 310 certified employees were not working there four years ago.
A district incentive to encourage veteran educators to retire prompted many departures in 2015.
By comparison, in the Olathe school district, 85 certified special education staff members resigned and 57 retired since the 2014-15 school year — representing about a third of the current department of 425.
Blue Valley, which employs almost 500 certified special ed employees, has tracked 160 resignations and 42 retirements during the same time period, roughly 42 percent of the current department.
“We’re not going to deny we have a turnover of staff,” Chatman said. “We do.”
But Chatman says that she does not believe Shawnee Mission is unique in this respect.
Employees leave to find better pay or opportunities or to work closer to home, she said.
“Shawnee Mission is dealing with it at the same level nationally that any district would do,” she said. “The demands of a special education teacher now are greater. People go into it with the right heart in mind,” she said, but some leave after facing the realities of the job.
But Shawnee Mission, particularly at the administrative level, typically pays employees more than neighboring districts. In recent years, coordinators earned salaries ranging from $87,000 to $110,000.
Three coordinators left the district this year, and two others, including one who took a $24,800 pay cut to work a similar job in the Kansas City, Kansas school district, resigned the year before.
Chatman points out that coordinators’ departures are not unusual; when she started in Shawnee Mission in 2014, the district had two coordinator vacancies.
“It hasn’t been a concern for me, only because it’s a trend in Shawnee Mission,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of administration in the district leave. ... This is going to be a big transition year in the district.”
Questions of compliance
In December — after special education advocate Liz Meitl filed a series of complaints with the state — the state Education Department found the district had not provided enough federally required services for a few dozen disabled or gifted students and had the district submit a corrective action plan.
While the state has approved the district’s plan and found it to be compliant, the state cited the resignation or absence of staff, lag time as the district worked to hire special education employees and, in some cases, unanticipated enrollment as reasons for the violations.
Some of these students were on the caseload of Robert Lackie, an art therapist who left the district this year.
As a half-time employee, Lackie said he provided art therapy services to students at multiple schools. But in the spring of 2017, he was asked to provide art therapy to students at the Arrowhead Therapeutic Day School, a new program for students with severe emotional needs.
He said parents there never explicitly agreed to his services, and the district did not intend to hold meetings with parents before the school year. “I had no proof of parental consent to provide support to these students,” he said.
He said he was also asked to submit lesson plans to the school so that students could get class credit for the time they were spending with Lackie, who is not licensed as a teacher. He was also troubled by a school environment that he said was frenzied and chaotic — including student runaways and police calls.
Chatman, he says, was either not responsive to concerns or reprimanded him for speaking up. He said she “lit into him” for speaking to a human resources representative about issues at Arrowhead.
(Overland Park Police records suggest that law enforcement was called to Arrowhead more than a dozen times, during the 2017-18 school year for runaway kids, children accidentally calling 911, a verbal assault and medical emergencies.)
When a combative student left the building and then tried to break into the locked building to go after a teacher, Lackie decided to resign because “it could have been me. It could have been a child.”
“I would never in a million years have left my job — I liked it,” Lackie said. “Money is not the issue and it’s not about me. My decision to resign was not going to benefit me. … It was about my safety, my credentials, my job.”
Chatman said there were no legal issues with Lackie providing generalized art therapy to Arrowhead students.
The state report also did not fault with the district’s decision to have Lackie provide art therapy to groups of students. But it did substantiate that the district did not hire someone to provide art therapy for three months after his departure.
And it also found that in several cases when people left the district, others staff members were forced to fill in the gaps, or students did not receive services that federal law requires.
Still, an investigator found no evidence to “suggest any district-level policy or practice resulted in service minutes to be missed.”
School board member Heather Ousley says she knows there is concern in the community about the special education department.
She heard it during her 2017 campaign, when she told The Star that funding cuts were hurting the special education department and parents worried about the loss of part-time support staff. She continues to receive complaints.
She called this summer a “tricky transition period.” With Chatman planning to step down — a decision Chatman said she made to ease Fulton’s transition since she knew she would leave within a year — all eyes have turned to Fulton’s hire.
“It’s difficult because we’ve also been right in the middle of an interim superintendent — you don’t necessarily want to implement big changes before new leadership comes in,” Ousley said.
She praised parents for continuing to bring special education issues to the board’s attention.
“I appreciate their advocacy and I hear them, and I believe the other board members hear them as well. I’m hopeful,” Ousley said. “With additional money (from the Legislature) next year and leadership in place, I think it’s going to be positive moving forward.”
Klose said she is tentatively optimistic about Fulton, who was superintendent in the St. Louis suburb of Pattonville, Mo., before Shawnee Mission chose him this spring.
“I am always an optimistic person and I would hope he would listen to the parents and staff and look at past behaviors,” she said.