Monday, September 15, 2008

Special-needs students, teachers and taxpayers get the shaft

Many people were recently affected by the closure of Woodland Hills (Utah Southvalley Community School at Woodland Hills or USC as they've been known for just over a year), but few were surprised. That's because payroll checks began to bounce earlier in the summer and teachers contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune reported that USC "churned through at least 50 employees." That's a big number and I thought that it must be an exaggeration until I read the fifty plus angry comments appended to The Tribune article. Now I'm beginning to understand the truth of the matter.

There are a lot of losers in this closure (the biggest loser being Bob Jones), but more importantly the special-needs students that counted on a place to learn and the teachers who really cared about the students and stuck around despite all the telltale signs that the school was going under. That being said, the emphasis that I'm obviously taking on the Bob Jones scam is concerning the taxpayers. It's a position we can all relate to because all of us are taxpayers.

USC would have received public funding in the form of tuition tax credits this year but besides having closed, they also failed to file their application by the May 1 deadline. The program that gives public money to private schools is called the Special Need Carson Smith Scholarship and the school had participated in years past. In fact, the school received $160,477 last year, the third-largest amount of the 40 plus participating schools.

Funding for the program began in 2005 when it was signed into law by Governor Huntsman and further expanded in 2006. There is very little accountability for receiving such a large amount of our money. There are only 15 provisions for a school to adhere to during the application process and 11 of them are preceded by the following statement.

"No documentation is required in the application relative to this provision."

The 15th provision simply recaps the documentation that is needed which is simply 1) a Tuition and Fee Schedule, 2) a copy of the most recent Public Health Inspection Report, 3) a copy of the most recent State Fire Marshall Inspection Report and if the school stores, prepares or serves meals to students, 4) a copy of a current and satisfactory Safety and Sanitation Report from the Department of Health. So little accountability! No need to report where the money is spent and on whom? Do we have any idea of the money that USC received was spent on the students, or did they just plan to use it to fund a trip to Japan for the football team? I wonder how many special-needs students were planning on going?

I must make mention again of the huge loss for these students and their families. It is very difficult to find good places for these students where their needs will be met, however, many of them have now come back to public schools where their Special Education needs, by law, must be provided. Public schools try very hard to meet those needs despite funding shortfalls and burdensome federal regulations. In a private school parents are not provided any guarantees that the school will meet the Special Education needs of their child. The federal laws do not apply and parents take a chance when they put their special-needs children in private schools.

Ironically, the only thing left of the USC school website is a notice demanding that lunch balances are paid and equipment returned and a picture of the guy responsible for the demise of the school. Can we demand that our public funds be returned or will the program be expanded yet again in 2008?