The Fitzpatrick family

The Fitzpatrick family learned just days before school started that speech therapy services for Quinn, a first-grader at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School, won't be covered by the Omaha Public Schools.

Quinn Fitzpatrick, a first-grader at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School, has trouble hearing so-called “soft sounds.” If you said “snow,” he’d probably hear “no,” his father explained.

With hearing aids and some other help, Quinn was able to keep up with his classmates during kindergarten last year.

Because public schools provide some special education services to private school students, the Omaha Public Schools picked up the tab for Quinn’s speech therapist and the microphone system he used to amplify his teacher’s voice — it transmits wirelessly directly into his hearing aids.

This school year, however, OPS has changed and reduced the type of special education services available to private school kids who live outside OPS boundaries, touching off a debate on how much a public school system with its own financial problems owes to private school students and how much notice parents should get when services are reduced.

Quinn and his family live within the Westside school district’s borders, but his school, St. Margaret Mary, is in the OPS district’s area.

Private schools do not fall under the landmark federal special education legislation, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, do not receive special education funding and are not required to provide special education services.

Public school districts, because of a provision in special education regulations, must spend a portion of federal special education dollars for students who attend private schools situated within each district. That applies to both students who live within the district and those who live outside it.

But just days before school started in August, Quinn’s parents found out that his speech therapy services would no longer be covered. OPS was curtailing some of the services offered to nonresident private school students like Quinn.

“It was definitely a punch in the gut,” said his mother, Brooke Fitzpatrick.

OPS decided that it would provide only occupational and physical therapy to nonresident students. (Resident students would still receive the services outlined in their special education plans.) When funds run out, that’s it — “these two services will be discontinued” for nonresident students, according to minutes from an OPS special education meeting. “It is anticipated that funds will run out by February 2019.”

OPS officials said the district previously was providing services above and beyond what’s required by law. The public school district, in consultation with private schools, is allowed to decide how to spend a limited pool of special education funds.

While officials said the decision to change this year’s offerings wasn’t made solely due to financial constraints, OPS is in a tough budget climate.

The district was forced to cut nearly $30 million from its budget earlier this year, due in part to escalating payments into its underfunded pension system, and OPS has to be efficient with every dollar, OPS spokeswoman Monique Farmer said. And families who opt for private schooling give up some of their federal rights to special education services at that school.

OPS isn’t the only district that picks and chooses which nonpublic special education services get funding — for nonresident students, Millard prioritizes speech services above others, and Elkhorn provides speech and hearing services.

The Fitzpatricks and several private school leaders have a number of questions and concerns about the decision. OPS sent a letter in mid-July explaining the changes. The Fitzpatricks say they never received it, and the timing gave parents and schools little time to work out alternate arrangements before school started in August.

“When we left school in May, OPS said nothing about this,” said Jeremy Fitzpatrick, Quinn’s father. “If they had, we could have made plans to move or otherwise deal with the change before it was right upon us. We weren’t given that chance.”

Farmer said, “We always try to communicate to our families as soon as possible when we know there’s going to be a change.”

Another concern among parents and private school officials is that the services OPS is still covering — physical and occupational therapy — are typically less in demand than services like speech therapy or extra instruction.

“What they chose to do is take the narrowest percentage and (said) that’s what we’ll provide,” said Teri Lynn Schrag, the superintendent of Cornerstone Christian School in Bellevue.

That’s in contrast to Millard, for example, which provides speech therapy to nonresident private school students as part of their equitable service plans. “We chose which service to provide and the service we chose to provide is speech and language because that throws the widest net and meets the most needs,” said Rebecca Kleeman, a Millard spokeswoman.

It’s unclear exactly how many private school students with disabilities are affected by the OPS decision, but the count includes roughly 50 students from Archdiocese of Omaha schools, plus four students at the Friedel Jewish Academy in west Omaha and seven from Cornerstone Christian School in Bellevue.

“This change is a significant hardship on many of our families, especially those that are traveling from Ft. Calhoun, Bennington, Blair, Elkhorn, etc. ... Many of our parents work in Omaha and cannot leave work to transport their children to services,” Tracey Kovar, the student services adviser for the Catholic Schools Office, wrote in an August email to OPS that was obtained by The World-Herald.

More recently, the Catholic schools and OPS have met to figure out “creative staffing,” said Michael Ashton, the superintendent of archdiocesan schools. For example, a paraprofessional, teacher or volunteer may step in to provide extra reading help.

“We’ll do everything we can to make sure our children don’t have gaps in the services,” Ashton said.

Schrag and Beth Cohen, the head of school at Friedel Jewish Academy, said the change added another challenge to the start of the school year. One of Schrag’s students with more extensive needs withdrew from Cornerstone. “(Occupational therapy and physical therapy) don’t touch his needs,” she said.

Crystal Smith’s fourth-grader at Friedel no longer receives speech therapy and extra help in math and reading. Now she and her husband may have to choose between her son’s religious education and the opportunity to get special education services if he transfers to a public school in Millard, where they live.

“Being a Jewish family, the Jewish education and the Hebrew education is very important to us,” she said.

Cohen said OPS was within its rights to limit the types of special education services it provides — everyone knows the district is battling budget troubles. But what she found frustrating was the lack of communication and planning to make sure that services students need weren’t interrupted.

OPS officials met with private school administrators at the end of June, meeting minutes show.

The district had spent more than a government calculation determined was its share of federal special education dollars to be spent on private school students with disabilities in the 2017-18 school year. The share was $523,805, but OPS ultimately spent $808,600 that year on services for resident and nonresident private school students.

That $808,600 funded physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech, supplies and equipment, resource services and transportation. That year and others before, if services weren’t covered by state or federal funds, OPS would plug the shortfall with money from its general fund budget. Now, every extra dollar has to go toward making payments to the pension fund, Farmer said.

So for this year, OPS decided instead to provide only occupational and physical therapy to nonresident students. In the 2017-18 school year, the district spent roughly $62,108 on those, compared to more than $417,000 on speech services. Other services made the total $808,600.

For the current school year, OPS’s estimated spending on special education services for nonpublic students is $518,273.

Quinn’s parents purchased their own microphone and have started paying out of pocket for Quinn to see the speech pathologist who works with other kids at St. Margaret Mary. “We have the resources to buy an FM system,” Brooke Fitzpatrick said. “What about all of those parents that don’t?”

OPS attorney Megan Neiles-Brasch said families can still apply to receive special education services from their home public school district, under an obligation known as free, appropriate public education. Or families could switch to a public school — or move into a different district — to receive the full range of special education services.

“The best advice we would give them is to have them contact the special education director at their resident district,” said Melissa Comine, OPS’s chief academic officer. “They retain the responsibility to provide their child with a free and appropriate public education.”

Jeremy Fitzpatrick said he interprets special education law to mean that the responsibility for services lies with the district where the private school is situated — in this case, OPS. The family plans to appeal OPS’s decision to the Nebraska Department of Education.

Schrag said, yes, the number of affected students is relatively small.

“It’s only 2 percent of my student population, but what matters is that one individual child,” she said. “They are staying within the law, but they are not making the best decision for students in their school community.”

Reporter - Education

Erin is an enterprise reporter for the World-Herald. Previously, Erin covered education. Follow her on Twitter @eduff88. Phone: 402-444-1210.

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