By Deanne Winterton (Standard-Examiner correspondent)
MORGAN — Parents of special education students are concerned about how the Morgan School District is spending federal stimulus money and promise to keep a close eye on it handles money in the future.
“I want someone to come up with a plan and reason why we should be spending taxpayer money on items and what benefit that is going to have on my student,” said parent Tina Cannon.
“If you’re going to spend money just to spend money, then find a way to make it useful. We want what is best with the funds allocated for those children. The district should be responsible to taxpayers.”
The district received $364,400 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 stimulus money meant specifically for special education.
The requires the funds be spent on “one-time resources in ways most likely to lead to improved results for students, long-term gains in school and increased productivity and effectiveness.”
In October 2009, the district spent $25,948 in stimulus money on 52 laptops to be split among the district’s four schools.
Special Education Director Steve Wood envisioned the laptops as part of a mobile computer lab for special education students, who also would be able to check out the laptops for home use.
Many of those laptops have been sitting in their original boxes since October, waiting for overworked district staff to implement and deploy them.
“Are we in compliance? No, we are not,” said Superintendent Ron Wolff. “Do we have to be? Yes, we do. The bottom line is, we’re out of compliance.”
In response, Cannon said, “That’s not going to fly with me.
“We are sorely lacking in speech therapy services by a master’s degree-level speech pathologist. My disgust and anger is (with the district saying), ‘We’re noncompliant, and there’s nothing we can do about that. You should be happy with that because we’re better than we’ve ever been,’ ” she said.
Joey Skinner, school board chairman, understands where the parents are coming from.
“We’ve got a group of very upset parents on one side and staff that thinks they’re making some progress on the other. We have 52 laptops, there for six months. We need a plan to use them productively.”
Wolff agrees, saying, “Those computers will be a waste of time if there’s not software and training as soon as possible.”
Many parents join Cannon in hoping the district spends remaining stimulus money on hiring a speech pathologist.
“We have kids not getting services they need. We need to create a better program,” said parent Mark Loucks.
Courtney Wallin, a speech therapist with the district, said the caseload of 100 students she was given three years ago is high.
“Sixty is busy but reasonable,” she said. “Two full-time speech therapists would be a reasonable request.”
“We’re understaffed,” Skinner said. “We knew that.”
However, qualified speech pathologists are hard to come by, with demand outpacing individuals coming out of graduate programs in Utah.
Many Utah school districts still hope to fill speech pathologist positions that have remained unfilled for as long as a year.
Morgan administrators are exploring job-sharing, contract and signing-bonus possibilities to fill the open speech pathologist position.
Parents will be included on a committee that will advise administrators on spending the remaining $139,200 in stimulus money, which must be spent on special education by 2012.