New special education director leaves one noncompliant program for another

 Fred Shafer (center) said Graham (inset) was the best person for the post.

Sept. 5, 2014 — the same day West Orange-Cove Consolidated Independent School District received final word from the Texas Education Agency that an on-site review of the district’s special education department found the Brant Graham-led program still non-compliant even though the school district’s special education director had three years to bring the program up to par — Graham applied to head the Beaumont Independent School District’s special education program. Two months later, Graham started work as one of the highest paid employees of BISD.

Beaumont Independent School District’s new special education director was touted by officials as having the necessary experience to lead the troubled department due to his prior work leading a special services department at the West Orange-Cove CISD even though he has never received special education teaching endorsement, but according to an Examiner investigation, Graham’s prior service at WO-C CISD calls into question the successfulness of his tenure. As shown in documents supplied by the Texas Education Agency pursuant to a public information request, Graham leaves behind a program under state monitoring for many of the same problems noted in BISD’s special education department.

BISD’s special education department was in need of a new director after the program garnered TEA attention in 2013 for allegations of noncompliance in key areas. Noted were inadequacy in properly convening Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meetings for residential facility students, not providing a commensurate school day for students with disabilities, not providing the services specified for special needs students as outlined in the ARD meetings, a large number of students with disabilities suspended from classes, and ineffective instruction for special education students not allowing for academic progress. The BISD special education review was released in February 2014, just two months before TEA investigators arrived at the WO-C CISD to perform a similar review of its special education program. 

Also similar between the two investigations were the findings noted by those who performed the on-site reviews for the TEA.

Graham, who began working at WO-C CISD in 2011, received notice from the TEA in 2012 that the program he was heading had several areas of noncompliance including “intensive program of instruction, personal graduation plan, free and appropriate public education, qualifications of special education, related service, and paraprofessional personnel, and staff development requirements.” TEA program monitor Karen Batchelor noted in July 18, 2012, correspondence directed to Graham that since the district addressed those issues in its continuous improvement plan (CIP), no further action would be needed at that time. Batchelor further advised that WO-C CISD would be assessed at a stage 3 intervention for residential facilities and a stage 2 intervention for the special education program.

Then, she wrote, “The TEA will follow up … on an ongoing basis to review data and evidence of change and to verify implementation of the CIP.”

According to TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson, while being targeted for intervention is not uncommon, multiple years of intervention tends to denote “they haven’t improved – or they haven’t improved enough.”

“Basically, it means we still have issues with their program,” she told The Examiner of the rationale to keep school districts in stages of intervention for multiple years. “They start out with stage 1 and then they progress down from there.”

As promised, the TEA did follow up on the Graham-led WO-C CISD special education program and found the special education program and residential facility programs to again need intervention in 2013. In 2014, the TEA sent a review team led by Susan Marek of the TEA Division of Program Monitoring to check up on WO-C CISD’s progress in the monitored areas of intervention. The team was on site at the end of April and the beginning of May 2014. In July 2014, TEA Program Monitoring and Interventions director Michael Greenwalt advised WO-C CISD officials and Brant Graham that his department was again found to be in non-compliance with special education laws and processes, and instructed the school district to make necessary changes to the program. The school district and special education director were tasked with submitting a plan of action to correct the noted problems. The WO-C CISD submitted a plan of action to the TEA on Sept. 4, 2014, the day before Graham applied to be BISD’s new special education director.

According to the preliminary on-site report of findings provided by Greenwalt, Graham’s program was under review “due to the identification of substantial, imminent or ongoing risks across programs monitored by the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS).”

“The major concerns,” as further noted in the TEA report, “include academic performance for special education students and students in the No Child Left Behind program on state assessments; special education and Title 1, Part A annual dropout rates; and disproportionate placement of special education students in in-school suspension (ISS) and out-of-school suspension (OSS).”

Among the findings addressed for the WO-C CISD special education program, “A review of the PBMAS data indicates that the passing rates for students with disabilities, grades 3-8 and secondary students taking end-of-course assessments, were significantly below the state standard for mathematics, reading, science, social studies and writing. The agency team learned through special education staff and teacher interviews and campus visits that a continuum of services for students with disabilities is not available to all students.

“Through interviews with general and special education teachers, the agency learned that causal factors for students with disabilities include low expectations for students with disabilities by general education teachers and, as noted previously, the lack of differentiated instruction in general education classrooms.”

Also reported in the 2014 review was a special education violation of the Texas Administrative Code that requires special education students to receive a school day commensurate with students without disabilities, as “campus visits also revealed that not all students with disabilities receive a commensurate school day, with some students dismissed 45 minutes prior to the end of the school day.”

“Additionally, a review of special education eligibility records revealed that the district does not convene ARD committees to determine intensive programs of instruction for students who did not perform satisfactorily on a state assessment. The failure to convene ARD committees for students with disabilities who did not perform satisfactorily on a state assessment to determine intensive programs of instruction is a violation of Texas Education Code.

“Administrator and staff interviews and a review of the IEPs revealed that not all students with disabilities who have reoccurring behavior issues have behavior intervention plans (BIPs). Additionally, through a review of student eligibility folders, the agency team determined that many BIPs are not comprehensive and lack details to change student behavior. A review of documentation also revealed that ARD committees did not convene to conduct a manifestation determination to review (MDR) for some students with disabilities who were removed more than ten days. The failure to conduct MDRs for students who were removed more than 10 days is a violation of 34 Code of Federal Regulations.

“Through interviews with the principals and teachers, the agency team learned that when students are assigned to ISS and the disciplinary alternative education program (DAEP), students do not receive the services and classes as written in the students IEPs. Further, a review of the IEPs revealed that, systematically, ARD committee meetings are not convened when students are placed in the DAEP and when the student returns to the general education setting.” Both are violations of the Code of Federal Regulations, according to TEA investigators.

In April 2014, just weeks before the TEA on-site review, a TEA hearing officer ruled against Graham’s special education department on behalf of a student who had been inappropriately placed in DAEP.

Also noted of concern to the TEA investigators in the 2014 review findings, “The agency could not find evidence that some residential facility students received speech therapy services as stated in the IEP, IEPs were not reviewed and revised annually, (and the district) failed to conduct due process hearings for students with disabilities.”

Sept. 5, 2014, the TEA again wrote Graham and WO-C CISD officials to advise as noncompliance on other issues in career and technology education affecting special education including annual notification, architectural barriers, comparable facilities for persons with disabilities and signage.

Also on Sept. 5, Graham submitted his name to BISD for consideration in taking over its special education department. His was only one of two applications received to not possess special education teaching certification, and it was the only application received after the job posting changed to allow for persons with no special education teaching certification to be considered for the post. Little more than one month later, he was announced as the lone finalist for the special education director position at BISD.

WO-C CISD spokesperson Lorraine Shannon said that although Graham was under contract for the 2014-15 school year, he was allowed to break that contract. The WO-C CISD is still accepting applications to fill that open position, she added.

TEA-assigned BISD special education monitor and district conservator Fred Shafer said that he was involved in the hiring of Graham as the new special education director. According to him, Graham was the best person for the post.

At a BISD Board of Managers meeting held Nov. 17, Shafer said, “It is good news the district has hired a special education director to take the lead in moving the department farther forward. However, with Dr. Graham’s knowledge and approval, I’d like to make some comments regarding some misconceptions. …

“The first misconception is he doesn’t hold the certification required to be the special education director. He holds a doctorate and a superintendent certification. He’s served as the director of special services. …

“The second misconception is that the job posting was rewritten specifically for this applicant. My thought was the (original) job posting was too narrow in its focus to attract qualified applicants. The recommended changes were made on what I believe was best for the district, not for a specific individual.”

Shafer went on to say that he assisted in the questions used to interview applicants for the special education director position, and “included responses for the interview team to listen for.”

“Now the focus can be on moving forward and improving services for students with disabilities in BISD.”

Shafer said that since he’s been at BISD, the special education department has improved the quality of services it renders. Parent input meetings and school surveys identified areas of non-compliance, and the conservator himself conducted training for special education personnel.

“There’s still some identified needs,” Shafer added. “I have had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Graham. I’ve shared these needs with him. We’ve already began working on how the department is going to address those needs.”

Even with the person BISD officials wants at the head of the special education department, Shafer says the program will likely not be turned around overnight.

“Things are not going to turn around in a year’s time,” he said. “Unfortunately, you’ve had a district that’s pretty much been void of leadership for the last six or seven years and so to think that we’re going to turn that around in a year’s time is unrealistic. But, it’s Dr. Graham working with campus administrators, communicating with campus administrators, involving campus administrators and personnel in the decision making, that in itself will help make some significant changes.”

Shafer and BISD human resources director Dwaine Augustine would not answer questions for this article. BISD spokesperson Ron Reynolds said the district was not in possession of the 2014 TEA WO-C CISD special education program report prior to Graham’s hiring but the district still feels Graham is the best candidate for the job he was hired to do.

“The Beaumont Independent School District (BISD) stands firm behind its decision to hire Special Education Director Dr. Brant Graham,” Reynolds wrote on behalf of the district. “He was named to the position in October after a series of interviews including a round of questions from an interview panel. The panel included teachers, parents, and administrators. Graham was chosen from a slate of four candidates.”