Allegheny County to cut 'redundant' education staff. Advocates say it will create a strain.

A classroom at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne, Pa., Wednesday, May 3, 2023.

90.5 WESA | By Jillian Forstadt

Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services (DHS) is planning to phase out its three education specialist positions just before the start of the 2024-2025 school year.

The county created the education specialist program about 25 years ago to support families in ensuring students’ special education needs are met. More than 28,700 Allegheny County students were enrolled in special education services last school year.

But in a notice posted to the county’s website last week, officials announced that $300,000 in annual state funding for the positions would be reallocated to other DHS services.

“A lot has changed in the services surrounding these positions in the schools and also in the field of managed care and behavioral health,” said Office of Behavioral Health director Stuart Fisk. “We've been looking at positions and really felt like the services provided by the educational specialists were being provided in other ways within the system, and were duplicative at this point.”

According to the county, education specialists provide information about Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to families, initiate contacts and referrals, and advise families during IEP meetings with their school district. In many cases, they also provide technical assistance and information on special education legislation to DHS and provider agencies serving children in Allegheny County schools.

The positions are being cut, in part, due to stagnant state funding. Allegheny County receives a block grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services each year. That money pays for essential programs ranging from mental health and drug and alcohol services to rental assistance and emergency shelters provided by the county’s homeless assistance program.

About 10 years ago, the county’s block grant allocation was cut by 10% and “really hasn't been restored,” said county DHS director Erin Dalton. She said the most recent state budget offers some additional resources, but “it very much feels flat to us, given increasing needs in things like homelessness and other mental health services.”
Though grants from nonprofits and foundations can help bridge some of the gap, “We have to make hard decisions about what we raise money for,” Dalton said.

According to Dalton, 155 families have received help from the education specialist team so far this school year. She estimated that the program currently serves about 5% of kids who could be eligible for support through the program.

“I don't think we would have a great case for serving a relatively small percentage of the population that is eligible,” she added, noting that the services provided by education specialists are available elsewhere in the greater human services system.

There are “far more supports in the schools” for children with behavioral health issues now than there were when the program first began, Fisk said, meaning the money allocated for the program will have a greater impact if spent on other issues.

These difficult decisions are happening across social service systems, he said, where “nobody has enough money” to provide the mental health resources required to meet the increasing demand. While Gov. Josh Shapiro’s latest state budget proposal would push another $20 million toward county mental health funding — as well as $100 million in school mental health funding — service providers across Pennsylvania say that’s not enough to rebound from past cuts.

“I think that I understand people's disappointment and anger [at the decision], but the only way to see through this is to work collaboratively around advocacy, around making sure that services are streamlined and directed at the people who need them, and that we work together,” Fisk said.

“We don't think this is a bad program. Of course it is helping some kids,” Dalton added. “And it shouldn't be that hard, right? Schools should be meeting kids’ educational needs. We're also not in a fight with the school districts about this. This is a three-person program. It’s surprising to me that it's a story at all.”

Cuts will ripple through the system, advocates say

According to county officials, teams will work this summer to help families currently served by the education specialists transition to other available services, both within the county and outside of it.
DHS’s Office of Behavioral Health employs five school-based liaisons to serve as a link between districts, mental health treatment providers and social service agencies. But of the five liaisons, two are based at Pittsburgh Public Schools. The remaining three each serve 17 school districts and charter schools.

Given those constraints, Mary Hartley with the Arc of Greater Pittsburgh — a nonprofit advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — said it’s unlikely the county’s school-based liaisons would have the same bandwidth or depth of expertise as the education specialists. “It takes years to truly develop the skills to navigate between mental health and educational systems serving children with disabilities,” Hartley said in a statement. “These experts could be the difference between kids who get what they need to be included and those who end up in very segregated educational systems or worse.”

According to Hartley, the Arc is one of just a handful of organizations providing educational advocacy services to families. The organization, however, employs just four advocates to serve all of Allegheny, Westmoreland and Beaver counties.

Together, they have provided advocacy services on a range of issues to more than 4,000 people in the last year, including 1,428 families seeking education advocacy services for children under 18, according to the organization. “This service is time intensive; hardly any organizations will attend meetings for free with families and support them through sometimes very challenging situations,” Hartley said. “Positive resolution [with districts] is critical to ensure that children can have the scaffolding and support they need to be successful. The funding that is being cut is necessary to ensure these students are supported.”

The specialist cuts also come at a time when there is a higher need for youth mental health services and behavioral health treatment.

“The Education Specialists have a unique skill set that helps ensure that students with mental health needs get the services that they may be entitled to and that they need in school,” said Cindy Duch, interim executive director of the PEAL Center.

While Duch’s organization provides no-cost advocacy training to families and individuals with disabilities statewide, she said their capacity is already limited. The PEAL Center is one of the organizations Allegheny County DHS is referring families to as it makes this transition.

“Organizations and agencies that provide this type of support to families are stretched,” she wrote in a statement. “When one of us is no longer providing this service, other families and their children will suffer consequences, too.”