Legislature(2003 - 2004)

02/27/2004 09:06 AM Senate FIN

Audio Topic
* first hearing in first committee of referral
+ teleconferenced
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
     SENATE BILL NO. 289                                                                                                        
     "An  Act  extending   the  termination  date   of  the  special                                                            
     education  service  agency;  and  providing  for  an  effective                                                            
This was the first hearing for this bill in the Senate Finance                                                                  
Co-Chair Wilken stated this bill, sponsored by Co-Chair Green,                                                                  
"extends the termination date of the Special Education Service                                                                  
Agency (SESA) until June of 2013, an additional nine years."                                                                    
JACQUELINE TUPOU, staff to Co-Chair Green, testified as follows.                                                                
     The Alaska  Legislature had established  the Special  Education                                                            
     Service  Agency  in '86.  And the  purpose  of it  was to  help                                                            
     schools  and infant  learning programs  that had children  with                                                            
     severe  disabilities  where  they  had no  local  expertise  to                                                            
     provide  that  for  them.  They  make  it  possible  for  those                                                            
     districts  that  either  a low  or remote  attendance  or,  for                                                            
     instance  if you were in a school  district that had  one blind                                                            
     child,  or one  disabled child.  It enables  those students  to                                                            
     receive  those  services  in their  community.  Those  students                                                            
     would  otherwise have to leave  their families and communities                                                             
     and go into costly  residential treatment programs, which would                                                            
     be  at  a huge  cost  to  the  State.  So as  intended  by  the                                                            
     Legislature,    they    deliver   student-specific     services                                                            
     specifically  to small school districts, but  they have lots of                                                            
     programs  that  are available  statewide,  such  as  workshops,                                                            
     courses,  library, newsletter, and a website,  that all schools                                                            
     have available to them.                                                                                                    
     We  recognize  at  this  time  that  the  availability  of  the                                                            
     personnel that have  specialization in student disabilities has                                                            
     really decreased.  At the same time, the incidences of students                                                            
     that  have  these severe  disabilities  has  really  increased,                                                            
     causing a lot of problems in different states.                                                                             
     We  have  this  bill  before  you that  will  extend  the  SESA                                                            
     education service  agency for another nine years until June 30,                                                            
CHRIS  ROBINSON,  Executive  Director,  Special   Education  Service                                                            
Agency, testified that he was available to respond to questions.                                                                
PAT DAVIDSON,  Director, Division of Legislative Audit  testified to                                                            
the report published December  18, 2003 auditing the Agency [copy on                                                            
file]. She relayed  that during the course of conducting  this audit                                                            
the Division found that  almost all school districts gave statements                                                            
in support  of SESA operations and  the continuation of the  Agency,                                                            
as well as requests for  increased funding of the Agency. She stated                                                            
that  based on  the findings  of the  audit, the  Division issued  a                                                            
recommendation to extend  the termination date for four years to the                                                            
year 2008.                                                                                                                      
Ms.  Davidson  spoke to  recommendations  included  in  the  report,                                                            
mostly to address  efficiency issues; primarily a  recommendation to                                                            
expand the use  of teleconferencing "between the SESA  expertise and                                                            
the school districts".  She noted this would result not only in cost                                                            
savings, but would  also provide more services to  school districts,                                                            
a request  expressed by  the districts. She  suggested that  through                                                            
the utilization of teleconferencing  services, the Agency would have                                                            
increased  contact with school  districts.  She predicted that  over                                                            
the next four  to six years, the Agency  would substantially  change                                                            
its delivery  of services, which could  be assessed at the  time the                                                            
recommended four-year extension neared completion.                                                                              
Ms.  Davidson  characterized  efficiency  issues identified  in  the                                                            
audit as "minor",  including a recommendation  that managers  pursue                                                            
the    availability    of   the    "e-government    discount"    for                                                            
telecommunications  expenses.  She said the  report also  encourages                                                            
SESA to stress  its status as a State agency rather  than a not-for-                                                            
profit organization  in securing lower  prices with vendors  as well                                                            
as in filing  paperwork with the federal  Internal Revenue  Service.                                                            
Ms.  Davidson  said the  Audit  found that  representatives  of  the                                                            
Department  of Education  and Early Development  and the  Governor's                                                            
Council  on Disabilities  and Special Education  were not  attending                                                            
SESA  meetings. She  stressed  this is  a crucial  element of  State                                                            
oversight of SESAs operations.                                                                                                  
Senator Olson asked what  specific changes were necessary to measure                                                            
the delivery of services.                                                                                                       
Ms. Davidson  replied  that pilot  programs must  be implemented  to                                                            
start  delivering those  services.  She explained  that specialists                                                             
were helping onsite instructors and teachers.                                                                                   
Senator Olson asked if the current activities are ineffective.                                                                  
Ms. Davidson  corrected they are very  effective; however  the audit                                                            
suggests  that  the  contact  could  be  increased.  She  noted  the                                                            
availability  of video  conferencing  equipment  currently used  for                                                            
Senator Olson  noted the legislation provides a nine-year  extension                                                            
and asked the consequences of the longer extension.                                                                             
Ms. Davidson gave two reasons  for a shorter extension. She admitted                                                            
that the existence  of a federally  mandated program is an  argument                                                            
for a longer  extension, although  a four-year extension  allows the                                                            
legislature  to  review  SESA operations.  She  qualified  that  the                                                            
longer extension could  be granted and the legislature could request                                                            
periodic audits  in addition to the automatic audits  conducted when                                                            
an  entity reaches  completion  of  its current  term.  She  stated,                                                            
however, that  statutory changes to programs are usually  offered in                                                            
conjunction with extensions  under the theory that legislation would                                                            
pass easier to avoid sun-setting the entity.                                                                                    
Co-Chair Green  noted she was troubled  by the amount of  time taken                                                            
and required  of SESA  to receive  extensions. She  remarked  that a                                                            
nine-year extension would  provide the organization stability in the                                                            
knowledge that it would continue.                                                                                               
Co-Chair Wilken  asked if other entities  have been given  nine-year                                                            
Ms. Davidson responded  that the previous extension  of SESA was ten                                                            
Co-Chair  Wilken  shared  that  he  was  intrigued  by Commissioner                                                             
Sampson's  assertion that  SESA was  unable to  conclude that  video                                                            
conferencing  would become "the norm"  at this time, given  the over                                                            
80 sites with this capacity.                                                                                                    
Ms. Davidson relayed  that it would require a substantial  change in                                                            
the  method in  which SESA  delivers  services. She  furthered  that                                                            
without "history" in the  process, the Commissioner was unwilling to                                                            
"recognize  that as the new norm for  service delivery without  more                                                            
DUANE GUILEY,  Finance Officer,  Special  Education Service  Agency,                                                            
testified via  teleconference from  Anchorage that he was  available                                                            
to answer questions.                                                                                                            
Mr. Robinson  expressed that an extension  of only four years  would                                                            
have  a negative  impact on  recruitment of  staff.  He told of  the                                                            
several  specialists vacancies,  with  up to  six more anticipated,                                                             
based on the average  tenure of 9.8 years. He detailed  his 20 years                                                            
in this  field  and 14  years recruiting  specialists  for SERA.  He                                                            
informed  of  the  national   shortage  of  qualified  specialists,                                                             
cautioning,  "it  is not  a seller's  market".  He remarked  on  the                                                            
difficulty in  convincing specialists to relocate  to Alaska without                                                            
certainty that the program  would continue. He indicated that if the                                                            
agency were understaffed, financial consequences would occur.                                                                   
Mr. Robinson also  pointed out that other recommendations  contained                                                            
in the audit  appear to be long term  and in conflict with  a short-                                                            
term sunset date on the Agency.                                                                                                 
Co-Chair  Wilken asked  the  witness to  address  the reluctance  to                                                            
commit to a videoconference process.                                                                                            
Mr. Robinson responded  that only a minority of schools in the State                                                            
has  videoconference   capability.  He  speculated   that  focus  on                                                            
utilizing these could result  in an uneven distribution of services.                                                            
He also reminded that many  efforts to implement a videoconferencing                                                            
system have  been unsuccessful and  stressed that SESAs capacity  to                                                            
utilize the systems relies  on "end user capacity". He was uncertain                                                            
whether  schools  in  some  villages  could  comply.  He  qualified,                                                            
however,  that the Board  of SESA  has indicated  intent to  utilize                                                            
teleconferencing  systems, especially for training  purposes. He was                                                            
skeptical  that  videoconferencing  could  ever replace  all  onsite                                                            
visits. He explained the  need for the specialists to understand not                                                            
only the student, but also  the environment surrounding the student.                                                            
Mr. Robinson  spoke to the benefits  of allowing students  to remain                                                            
in  their homes  and  attend their  local  schools,  rather than  be                                                            
moved, as is done in other states.                                                                                              
Co-Chair  Wilken  pointed  out  that  the  first  videoconferencing                                                             
systems were  installed ten years  prior, and agreed that  many were                                                            
disappointed  in  its  performance.   However,  he  noted  that  the                                                            
original  technology  did not  involve fiber  optic  cables, as  are                                                            
currently available and significantly improved performance.                                                                     
Co-Chair Wilken  noted a spreadsheet titled, "SESA  Outreach Methods                                                            
by School District" [copy  on file] that listed each school district                                                            
and  asked   if  any  of   the  sites  have   been  identified   for                                                            
videoconferencing programs.                                                                                                     
Mr.  Robinson answered  yes  and referenced  a  spreadsheet  titled,                                                            
"Student-Specific   Consultations   Caseload  Count,  FY   2004  2nd                                                            
Quarter" [copy  on file]. He told of a competitive  grant awarded to                                                            
SESA to develop  an Alaska Autism Resource Center.  He stressed that                                                            
this contract  was "highly  technology intensive"  and specifically                                                             
proposed the use  of videoconferencing to maximize  an "under-funded                                                            
contract  given the  State need  for information  and assistance  in                                                            
autism."   He  told  of   contracts  with   General  Communications                                                             
Incorporated  (GCI) to implement videoconferencing  services  in the                                                            
Bering  Strait, Chugiak,  Lower  Kuskokwim, Lower  Yukon,  Northwest                                                            
Arctic, and Southwest Region school districts.                                                                                  
Co-Chair  Wilken knew  of  a demand  for autism  spectrum  disorders                                                            
services  in Fairbanks,  although  no  services were  available.  He                                                            
expressed intent to discuss the matter further at a later date.                                                                 
Mr. Robinson  informed that  the Center is  a resource to  Fairbanks                                                            
and other communities.  He told of  the high attendance at  a recent                                                            
two-day course and seven conferences.                                                                                           
Co-Chair  Wilken  asked  whether  the  Legislature   should  mandate                                                            
attendance  of Department  of Education  and  Early Development  and                                                            
Governor's   Council   on   Disabilities   and   Special   Education                                                            
representatives at SESA board meetings.                                                                                         
Mr. Robinson  detailed the  collaboration  and working relationship                                                             
between  SESA, the  Department and  the Council.  He attributed  the                                                            
lack of attendance  to the multiple  competing responsibilities  and                                                            
high  turnover  rates of  the  particular  staff. He  surmised  that                                                            
because SESA functions  successfully, it is not a "problem area" and                                                            
therefore not of concern for the Department or the Council.                                                                     
Co-Chair Wilken again asked  whether attendance should be mandatory.                                                            
Mr. Robinson  responded it  should not, noting  that "the point  has                                                            
been  made" and  that both  agencies were  represented  at the  SESA                                                            
meeting held in  February. He predicted the board  would become more                                                            
assertive in its response to any future nonattendance.                                                                          
Co-Chair Green  offered a motion to  report the bill from  Committee                                                            
with individual recommendations and accompanying fiscal note.                                                                   
There was  no objection and  SB 289 MOVED  from Committee with  zero                                                            
fiscal  note  #1   from  the  Department  of  Education   and  Early                                                            

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