First published in the April 23 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Roughly a dozen special education teachers attended this week’s Burbank Unified School Board meeting to lobby for smaller class sizes, more planning time and other changes.
The Burbank Teachers Association, which represents the educators, is negotiating with the district on a new contract. Though the teachers who spoke were involved with a number of different programs, most said they have long struggled to manage the number of students they are assigned while also meeting regularly with families regarding students’ individual education plans.
California and much of the rest of the United States have been experiencing teacher shortages. A 2022 poll by the National Education Association indicated that more than half of its members said they are more likely to leave their profession or retire earlier than anticipated due to the pandemic. The percentage was higher for Black and Hispanic educators.
Some research has also suggested that special education teachers leave at a higher rate than their peers.
Those who attended Thursday’s meeting offered a variety of potential solutions, often saying they need more time to do paperwork, more educators and stricter caps on class sizes. Some also indicated that some teachers have left the district due to their workloads.
“It’s not fair that such talented and compassionate educators should have to choose between the students and families they love working with and their own health and well-being because the district is not willing to support our students and staff at the level they require,” said Amalia Hernandez, a speech language pathologist at Bret Harte Elementary School.
Hernandez said her special education team is the most dedicated group she’s ever worked with, but the district needs to begin planning now to hire help for next semester, before caseload numbers increase.
Nicole Drabecki, a physical education teacher at Dolores Huerta Middle School, who said she was speaking on behalf of a special education colleague at the same site, said teachers’ workloads have tripled since her colleague started at the district 27 years ago. Each case manager at the school has a class size at or close to the legal limit of 28 students, she added.
Teachers implored the board of education to heed BTA’s proposals and implement changes.
Darla Gerharter, a special education teacher at Providencia Elementary, said the board should amend its master plan for special education programs. Educators should only have to work with a maximum of two grade levels, she added, instead of three or four, and need more instructional assistants.
“This means every teacher and student has the opportunity for an equitable learning experience,” Gerharter said.
School board members agreed that they needed to study ways to improve conditions for special education teachers. Board clerk Emily Weisberg said she had recently asked that the board of education reexamine the master plan on May 19.
While schools nationwide are experiencing teacher shortages, she added, the district could be more proactive.
“I want you to know that we hear you,” Weisberg said. “It’s important that you know, not that you need reassurance, but that when you come to us and you tell us, you talk about these issues, what we hear, or what I hear … are people who are passionate about advocating for their students and for themselves.”
Superintendent Matt Hill thanked those who addressed the board, noting that its members and district staff recently visited the schools to hear the teachers’ concerns. And while the district prepares to look at the special education master plan, he added, the district and BTA will continue to negotiate.
“We’ve been making good progress [to] understand what we can and can’t do, but we understand that we need to do something,” Hill said.