In the end, lingering questions regarding the proposed budget and staffing helped convince Fairfax County School Board members that an application submitted by PACE for a charter school dedicated to teaching Applied Behavior Analysis, better known as ABA, to children with autism was not ready for "prime time," as one board member put it.
What the application did do, the board said, was focus attention on an area the school system, which prides itself on being considered one of the best in the nation, is failing in the eyes of some parents. In response, the board directed Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech to work with PACE to create an ABA program, which is intensive and teaches basic skills through the repetition of drills, that would function within the current financial constrains.
The proposal will be one of the topics of discussion at a work session Dec. 8 and voted on as early as Dec. 18.
"We were surprised to see an alternate proposal come out so late," said Randy Nicklas, chair of the group's charter school planning committee. "We want to work with Dr. Domenech and make the best possible program go. I'm just surprised at the timing and I'm concerned about the timeline."
PACE, a nonprofit organization created by local parents, spent more than a year working on the proposal only to have Domenech provide a basic outline of a program the school system is exploring the very night the board is set to vote on the charter school application. PACE members had met with Domenech the night before the Thursday vote, where Domenech had informed them he planned to recommend the board deny the application.
While PACE members are pleased the school system is finally taking steps towards creating a program for children with autism, which they say is more appropriate for their children than what is used now, they are cautious about the outcome.
"I'm concerned, we really need to see the details," said Tom Urban, president of the organization. "I think, from a lawyer's standpoint, there are several legal problems with the superintendent's plan that are greater than there ever were with the charter school."
At the heart of the charter school proposal was the need to teach children with autism on a 1-1 ratio. PACE proposed to accomplish this by staffing a full-time, certified teacher for every 10 students and hiring 60 college students, to be paid hourly with no benefits, to provide the one-on-one instruction for the 60 students enrolled in the charter school. The proposal would require a waiver from the state, which mandates a full-time, certified teacher for every eight students.
Domenech said with the state staffing regulations, the school system can not provide the type of one-on-one attention sought by PACE, however, he said the school system’s program may be able to provide staffing at a level of four instructors to every five students at the preschool level. Current standards are a 3-5 ratio. In addition, parents whose children are in the preschool program will have the option of being part of the summer program without having to modify their child's Individualized Education Program — a written plan that includes the student's special learning needs and the specific special education services required by the student — in effect providing the year-round school PACE was seeking to offer.
For children in kindergarten through sixth grade, Domenech is proposing parents have the option to remain in the school system's current program for children with autism or enroll in a 1-1 ratio program, which sacrifices other services such as speech therapy and counseling to gain the additional staffing.
Some Board members also shared PACE's concerns about the superintendent's plans.
"We're asked to vote down a program put together by PACE as a true ABA program in favor of a program we put together, that we didn't want to do a year ago, as a true ABA program," said School Board member Mychele Brickner (At large), referring to an ABA pilot the board opted not to continue because it was deemed too expensive.
"I have the feeling this isn't about ABA anymore. ... It's about maintaining control in the school system instead of vetting out control to a charter school."
SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER Christian Braunlich (Lee) said he didn't think the current PACE proposal was "ready for prime time" but still tried to have it remain on the table, so the board could weigh the charter school application against the program Domenech brings forth.
"In my view the current proposal would not pass. … Earlier this week, it seemed many board members favored a narrower approach … suddenly we have our own proposal," Braunlich said. "Now, we're being asked to take off the table the very thing that got us all together."
Braunlich's effort to defer the vote on the PACE charter school failed 4-7, along party lines, with Cathy Belter (Springfield) abstaining.
The motion to deny the proposal was made by Robert Frye (At large), who also added a second motion requiring Domenech to work with PACE to create an ABA program that fits within the school system's budget.
"I think the board needs to be responsive to parents who clearly are unhappy," Frye said.
The motion to deny passed 8-3, with Braunlich abstaining, while the motion to create a new program passed unanimously.
As for PACE members, they vow to come back with another application for a charter school if the school system’s program does not make the grade.
"If there is not ABA by this time next year, we will be back with a proposal," Urban said. "A lot of kids are getting older and have missed the opportunity to benefit from ABA. I've been trying to get this in the county for eight years. There are children who are now 8-years-old that have missed the opportunity."
Domenech's proposal is to be presented for new business at the board's Dec. 4 meeting, followed by a work session Dec. 8 and vote Dec. 18.