Community Activism and Social Change In the Bellingham School District.

Happenings – March 13, 1972

On Monday evening I went to the home of David Agnew who is a teacher of Special Education in the Bellingham School District to discuss with him some of the problems in Special Education Classes.  Mr. Agnew told me that he had heard that Mr. Feldman (Director of Special Services for the School District) was going to retire this year.  He also informed me that Dr. Geraldine Doll would also be retiring this year.  This somewhat concerned me in that I had not heard it before and was afraid that maybe the School District would be filling these positions with individuals less than the most qualified. 

On Tuesday morning Mrs. Pat Charlston, Bellingham School District Speech Therapist, came to my office and we discussed at length the problems that she encounters within the school district in the programs for the handicapped.  She elaborated on a number of problems which we will list separately:  essentially though she also expressed concern that both Dr. Doll and Mr. Feldman were retiring at the same time.  On her departure from my office, I called Ron Jepson, a new member of the Bellingham Board of Education and told him of my concern that the School District would be trying to hire somebody to replace Mr. Feldman who would not be a Special Education specialist.  I told Ron Jepson that as President of the Whatcom County chapter of the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) I would not permit the school district to do this without a massive amount of negative publicity and that he could rest assured that it would be very detrimental to the school district.  He informed me that that same evening the school board would be having a meeting and he would check on this.  I assured him that if any action were brought up regarding Mr. Feldman’s resignation and the filling of this position with someone who did not have a Doctorate in Special Education that we would raise a public outcry.

On Wednesday morning Mr. Jepson called me back and told me that in Executive Session personnel matters were discussed.  Dr. Doll’s request for retirement was received and accepted.  Mr. Jepson raised the question of whether Mr. Feldman was also retiring and asked who would replace him.  It seems that someone, and I would assume this to be the Superintendent of Schools, Mr. Gordon Carter, informed Mr. Jepson and the other members of the Board of Education that there were two administrators that were currently available who would be losing their positions by virtue of school consolidation who would be eminently qualified to fulfill the position of Director of Special Education, Special Services for the School District in that “this job is mainly an administrative job and anyone who has had school administrative experience can fill this function.”  At this point, I lost my temper and told Mr. Jepson that in no way was this true, that it was a ghastly kind of situation, that if the school board was going to accept this kind of shallow reasoning on the part of the Superintendent of Schools that he can rest assured that they would be hearing much more from our association.

Ron Jepson quickly assured me that the School Board had taken no action on this and personally assured me that he would in no way permit such a thing to happen in the school district.  I thereupon proceeded to draft a letter to Mr. Ed. Dahlgren, President of the Board of Education for School District 501 in which I clearly stated my position as President of the Washington Association for Retarded Children, Whatcom County Chapter.  At the same time, I drafted a letter to Gordon Carter, Superintendent, wherein I very clearly told him that our association would not tolerate the kind of action that we saw him pursuing.  Namely, I stated “the past practice of using the position of Coordinator of Special Services as a place to retire school principals is no longer acceptable to the parents of the retarded and handicapped.”  I called Mr. Jepson back and read him the letter.  I assured Mr. Jepson that I would keep him informed of our activities so that in no way could he think that we were pursuing things behind his back to the detriment of the best interests of the school district.

I then called Mr. John Mattson, the Director of Special Education for the State of Washington in the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia and explained to him what was happening in Bellingham.  He assured me that the course we were taking was the correct one.  He further elaborated on some of the problems that he has had with the Bellingham School District.  He informed me that Mr. Gilbert Thurston, Principal of Parkview School, was the chairman of a committee to study special services in the Bellingham schools and that I might get in contact with him and explore with him the study that his committee was undertaking.  Mr. Mattson also informed me that if, in fact, there was going to be a vacancy in the Office of the Director of Special Services in the Bellingham School District that Mr. Larry Freshly would probably be very interested in applying for that job.  Mr. Freshly is currently the Director of the Secondary School Program for the Handicapped for the State of Washington.  He works out of the Special Education Division of the Office of Public Instruction in Olympia.

I discussed with Mr. Mattson the problem of Speech Therapy in the schools and pointed out that the Principals in the schools where Speech Therapists worked were the ones who established the priorities of who would be treated or worked with by the Speech Therapists.  I pointed out that the handicapped children were the last priority and that the students in the normal classes who had some form of speech problem were the first to receive help from the Speech Therapists.  Mr. Mattson informed me that the first priority must be the handicapped, that the priority of the Bellingham School District was upside down.  It was reverse of what it should be by law.  He pointed out that if they (the Bellingham School District) did not reverse this that they could lose all state funding for speech therapy.  He stated that the treatment of children who say “wabbits” instead of rabbits and “wockets” instead of rockets must come from the local school budget.  We further discussed the problem of the use of budget categories of supplies and equipment and the extent to which these have been used for purchasing materials for the classroom.  I told him that I heard stories that from the special needs budget they were purchasing desks, chairs, and material that should be provided to all students regardless of whether they were handicapped.   I was assured by Mr. Mattson that I was entirely correct in this and that if I could find any such cases where this was done it would be cause for bringing suit against the school district.

On Wednesday afternoon at 4:00 p.m., I went to see Mr. Lester Feldman who is the current Director of Special Services and Special Education for the Bellingham School District.  Mr. Feldman was very gracious in receiving me in his office.  We began the conversation talking about the budget which I had recently published wherein I had outlined the funds that were available to the local school district.  Mr. Feldman felt that there were some errors in the paper.  I asked him to specify them for me.  He pointed out that Alan Thon, for instance, received only one-half his salary from the handicapped budget and that the amount shown was only one half his salary.  He also pointed out that some of the individuals listed as supportive personnel actually worked in Blaine and other areas of Whatcom County and not necessarily within the school district itself.

Mr. Feldman then proceeded to tell me some astonishing information, namely that he was responsible for many other kinds of activities other than the education of the handicapped.  He stated, for instance, that he was in charge of the driver education program for the school district and that he was in charge of the teacher visitation program for the district.  He also stated he was in charge of the testing programs for the entire school district and mentioned other activities he was in charge of that had nothing to do with the handicapped.  I asked him what percentage of his time he felt he spent on these activities and he indicated that upwards of 30% of his time was spent on these and only about 70% on programs for the handicapped.  I thereupon asked him if the $17,652.50 indicated as his salary in the budget was his total salary and he said yes.  I asked him then how come he was using handicapped money for driver education.  He had no response.

We then discussed the budget itself.  I told Mr. Feldman that I was very interested in those three categories called “supplies and materials” at $2,500; textbooks at $1,000 and specialized equipment at $2,500.  I asked him if or why it was that having this much money the classroom teachers would have to go to the various associations for retarded children for assistance.  He said he never refused a request that came to him, that this year every single request was filled.  He stated that, frankly, we had brought this on ourselves.  He stated that we (WARC) had advertised to the teachers that we were willing to help them in obtaining funding for their classroom programs if they needed any particular kind of equipment.  I responded saying, no, we were providing those funds to the various teachers because they could get nothing from their local school principals.  I asked him if there were any receipts and what kind of forms these requests had to come on.  He showed me the form.  I asked if he had to sign every one of these and he said: “No, other people also charge against this budget like downstairs Dr. Roberts and other people can make charges against the budget.”  I said, “Do you mean that you do not even control your own budget?”  He responded, “Yes, that is true.”  He did not know the amount of money in his budget and since other people were making charges against it he was never sure how much money he had to spend.  I told him that I found this somewhat incredulous, that the Director of a program did not control his own budget.  He assured me that things were getting better all the time; that there are not as many abuses now; that chairs and desks are not being charged against the budget as formerly, that the new accounting system is making them more honest.  I congratulated him on becoming more honest.  I suggested that I would like to investigate the books for the last five years and that I was going to ask Mr. Roberts for the information on this area. 

I then changed the subject to the Speech Therapy program and asked Mr. Feldman why it was that the handicapped children were not getting the speech therapy but rather the nice little kids who mispronounced their wockets and their wabbits.  He assured me that the priorities for the allocation of speech therapy were the responsibility of the school principal and that he, personally, had nothing to do with it.  I suggested that as the Director of the Special Education program he had EVERYTHING to do with it, that he was hired to defend the rights of the handicapped and to administer the money that was in his charge to work for the handicapped and that it was HIS responsibility to change these priorities.  I informed him that I had heard that the school district was going to lose the entire funding for speech therapy if they are not in compliance pretty quickly in this area.  He then snapped back that he had received no orders from Olympia to this effect, that he had received no directions that he must comply or lose the state funds.  My reaction was “Dammit, man, you are paid to take care of the programs for the retarded and the handicapped, why should someone have to order you to do so from Olympia, aren’t you being paid to do exactly that right here and now?” 

At this point, I brought out the letters that I had prepared and I read them to him.  First I read the letter directed to Mr. Dahlgren, President of the Board of Education.  Then I read to him the letter addressed to Gordon Carter, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Bellingham School District.  On having the letter read to him Mr. Feldman was most upset, and with reason, as it called for his resignation if he had not already offered it.  He asked “Do you really consider that I am unqualified for this position?” and I responded “Definitely.”  He asked “Do you consider Special Education programs have deteriorated since I have been in this position?” and I responded “Definitely.”  He demanded what rights I had to make these allegations.  He questioned whether I was a professional trained in special education.  I replied that I was much more a professional than he and that I am in the position where I can judge the accuracy of the program and I judge it to be poor and that I hold him responsible for it.  He asked who told me that he was going to retire.  I said it was a rumor that I had heard from several sources and especially knowing how ill you have been we feel that this is a possibility.  His rejoinder was “I am sure you have gotten ill in the past.  Every time you get ill do people say you are going to retire?”  I suggested no, that the situation here is entirely different.  He said he might not retire.  My response was “Fine, then we know exactly who our protagonist is going to be because we are going to come in here with lawsuits.  We’re coming in with massive protests and with lots of publicity.  We’re going to force you out of this position.”  I made it clear that the Association for Retarded Citizens was not going to accept the level of service being rendered because of the need to use this position as a resting place for administrators who are not qualified to hold the job. 

At this point, there seemed not much more to say.  Mr. Feldman wished me luck in my endeavors.  I thanked him.  I told him that I would be back and that he surely would be hearing more from me.  I asked if he would be kind enough to take the letter to Gordon Carter for me and he asked if I would like to meet Mr. Carter.  I said, “No, not necessarily.  If Mr. Carter wishes to see me I would be glad to meet with him at his convenience but I had no need to meet him at that moment.”  Feldman asked if he could make a copy of the letter and I said “Please do.  I can mail you a copy if you wish as I have 100 copies that I plan to distribute.”  He declined my offer so I left.

Wednesday evening I received a phone call from Mrs. Pat Charleston, one of the Speech Therapists who had seen me going into Feldman’s office.  She wanted to know the results of the conversation.  I told her what had ensued.  She told me that she and another Speech Therapist had been talking about this while I was with Feldman.  The second therapist said that she would resign rather than work under another administrator such as Feldman.   I then called Jim Higbee, Psychologist for the School District who also works under Feldman (and a member of WARC) and advised him of what I was doing.  I read him the letters and told him that I would make it clear that any action taken by WARC against the school district was done with him abstaining from the vote.    I then called Kay Price, also a member of the WARC Board of Directors and a Special Ed teacher in the school district and brought her up to date on what was happening.  Frankly, she was delighted. 

Thursday, 16 March 1972.  I met with Dr. Max Higbee who is the Director of the Special Education program at Western Washington State College in Bellingham.  He laughed and thought that my language was somewhat direct, but felt that I was entirely correct in what I had done.  He said he would give me the fullest support helping to locate the best-qualified person for the position of Director of Special Education in the Bellingham School District.  Dr. Higbee said that he had been on the phone with Reno Mattson (of the State Office of Education) who had told him of the things I was doing.  On returning to my office I called Reno Mattson and told him of my meeting with Feldman.  I told him about Feldman not working full time as Director of Special Education and that he had other responsibilities.   Mr. Mattson suggested that I read the Bulletin number 37-71 which he sent to me.  In it on page 2, item 11, it reads:  Special Education Directors:  … special education supervisory personnel employed by a school district or intermediate school district to provide: a) direct administration exclusively to the special education programs; such duties must be exclusive to handicapped pupils in all programs with sixteen or more certified staff members.”  Mr. Mattson was quite perturbed by my revelation in this area and he said: “You recognize, of course, that they are not in compliance with the law and that we could come in and make them refund the money and call for an audit, a five-year audit, of their books and perhaps impose on them such a fine that they would have to have a special levy to pay for it.” 

Friday, 17 March 1972.  This has been an eventful four days which I had better document now before I forget the details of what happened.

Everything that we demanded from the school district we got!  The administration was aware that we were going to sue the school district and knew that they were at risk.  It would have been a terrible public relations disaster for the school district.  It took one guy with guts to confront the highly respected elite of the community but the law was on our side.  We won. 

What is to be learned from this confrontation?  There are a number of community organizing principles evident here.

  1. The first is that we wanted to institute social change, not merely a change in role occupants. Yes, we wanted Feldman out of that position but the school district would only replace him with another administrator that needed a job if we didn’t change the way in which the role occupant was selected.  It was a social system change that we sought and not merely a change in personalities.
  2. The second principle is to know the law.  Here we needed to know the relevant RCWs (Washington State law) and the WACs (Washington State Administrative Code) i.e. the operating policies and regulations based on the law.  We accomplished this by contacting the Office of Education in Olympia and asked for the relevant WACs and RCWs.  We were not only given those but also advice from the state officials regarding what we might look for as we studied the local schools operations.
  3. Another important point is to ground your charges against the system as currently operating with facts.  Be able to prove your charges.  The Washington State Public Disclosure Law allowed us to demand to see the computer printout of the budget and also the right to go in the files and check all the receipts.