Tight finances in DeKalb lead to cuts for Special Olympics

Long known for its powerhouse program, the second largest in Georgia, DeKalb historically has had as many as 1,400 children with autism, Down syndrome and other cognitive conditions to competing in 18 events, from basketball to soccer.

But the budget cuts ordered by the school board, part of $78.6 million in overall spending reductions, have plunged the program into uncertainty. Officials have been sending mixed messages about its fate, indicating at one point this week that all but one sporting event would be eliminated and then retracting that statement.

One major change is clear though: all but one of the nine coaches will be shuffled into new positions. The other coach retired. Children with cognitive disabilities will continue to receive coaching, but from regular coaches rather than specialists, Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson said Wednesday. Also, there likely will be fewer events.

The cutbacks dismayed Boni Powell, the coach who retired this summer after coordinating the Special Olympics program for 23 years.

"Parents would be in an uproar if they contemplated cutting sports for regular kids," Powell said. "Kids need to move. There're all these tests that show your brain works better when you're moving."

The changes stem from the school board's decison to increase the average special education class size by two students.

Officials had to ensure, though, that those changes didn't violate federal law. Children with special needs are guaranteed a tailored education, with the details spelled out in what's known as an Individualized Educational Program, or IEP. After the school board's vote, administrators combed through IEPs to ensure staffing requirements were met for each child.

Those coaches who prepared children to compete in Special Olympics at local, regional and state levels had to reinforce teachers in the more crowded classrooms.

"We have to focus all of our resources on IEPs because they're federally-mandated," school system spokesman Walter Woods said. "The Special Olympics program is a wonderful program, but it is elective."

Woods said Tuesday that, of 18 competitive events, only track and field would remain.

Atkinson retracted that message Wednesday, saying it was never her intent to cut the program that deeply. She said there would be more than one event, but wouldn't commit to a number. She also promised to send students to the state games.

Cathy Buell, one of the transferred special education coaches, remains concerned about plans to transfer coaching duties to regular physical education teachers. She knows how special education children can be ridiculed by other kids. Regular physical education teachers — Buell used to be one — have as many as 40 children per class and won't have the time to look after the disabled children, she said. "These kids need to be protected."

Jennifer Vaughan of Avondale Estates has an 11-year-old daughter with autism and other developmental disabilities who learned to swim in DeKalb's program. The girl loves the thrill of competitions, where she met enthusiastic volunteers and supportive students. Vaughan was saddened when she heard talk of cuts "because she can't get that anywhere else. She can't be part of a regular team."

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