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Facing a rare state audit of the Davenport Community School District's special education program, administrators spent hours Wednesday explaining the program to school board members.

In a session led by Patti Pace-Tracy, program director, the board learned about IEPs, or individual education plans, given to students with special needs. They also heard why IEP students can be placed in restrictive settings as well as explanations for a state-leading increase in program expenditures from 2016-2017.

The presentation was in front of about 40 people, unusual for a committee-of-the-whole session. The audience included parents as well as instructors and community activists.

The special session was called because the Iowa Department of Education is sending seven-10 people to Davenport for three days, Jan. 30-Feb. 1, to audit the special education finances and to look at academic concerns.

The expenses sharply increased last year, Pace-Tracy said, because teachers and paraprofessionals all received salary increases.

Certified teachers in Davenport's programs for students with the greatest disabilities got an additional $8,000 per year, she said. Other teacher salaries went up by $4,000.

In the paraprofessional jobs, increases were $5 an hour in the most challenging positions, to increases of $2-$3 in other special education areas.

The wage increase was negotiated with the Davenport Education Association, and is good until 2020, Superintendent Art Tate said.

Before this, the special education department would have 50-60 vacancies per year. In addition, Pace-Tracy said the department has added programs and seen population increases.

Most of the children and teens have significant needs, Pace-Tracy said. In all, the Davenport district's special education students number more than 2,500.

Programs added include a crisis interventionist class, with two paraprofessionals, and about eight students, she said. The class size is limited because of the intense needs of the students.

Other areas the state will investigate concern the IEPs. There are concerns about "pre-determination of services, particularly with behavior needs."

In addition, the state will look at how the IEPs are related to removals from the classrooms, in suspensions and expulsions.

Pace-Trace said she is unclear why the state has raised concerns in these areas, which are not part of IEP plans.

Susan Downs, a special education specialist, spoke on the state's initial concern, which is that Davenport's percentage of students with disabilities placed in restrictive settings is among the highest in Iowa.

The guideline is for students with an IEP to be in a general education classroom for most, or 80 percent, of the day, Downs said.

"We didn't meet that benchmark until this year," she said.

Last year, just 24 percent of the special education students were in the general classes 80 percent of the day. This means the students received more intensive support for most of the school day.

This year, Pace-Tracy said, the district is flipping the number, and now is on track to meet the challenge. To date, some 75.62 percent of the students are in general education classes 80 percent of the day.

"We do have to meet the requirements. This is why they are coming in here," Pace-Tracy said of the state officials.

Board members expressed frustration at the situation. President Ralph Johanson said the state and federal guidelines may not make sense at a local level. "It appears they have a different motive in establishing the guidelines," he said.

Board member Daniel Gosa said that last year, he attended a special education council meeting.

"That was very intimidating," he said, and explained the district had a number of people represented at the session he attended, but there were only a few who were not affiliated with the department. 

"I'd like to see that be less intimidating," he said.

Pace-Tracy said the whole concept of special education is intimidating to most people. She talked about an advisory group to the program, and how the district invites many parents or guardians to meetings but most do not attend.

Tate said the advisory group is mandated by the state, and would be different from a focus group, or a listening group for the special education program.