Santa Fe Public Schools is failing preschool students with learning disabilities at a "systemic" level by not providing all the services mandated by federal law, according to a report the New Mexico Public Education Department sent to the district.

The report suggests the district's failures, which include not providing students with requisite hours of speech, language and occupational therapy as well as neglecting to notify parents of special education referrals for students in a timely way, start early, in its preschool programs. Parents tell SFR the problems compound as students with learning disabilities enter higher grades.

In an interview with SFR, district Superintendent Veronica Garcia did not dispute the PED's findings.

She describes the report as "a good eye-opener" into widespread problems facing preschoolers with special needs and affirmed the district's commitment to remedying the problems identified by the state.

"I think the broader systemic issue has to do with the preparation of [special education therapists] and their recruitment to public schools, and our ability to pay them competitive salaries, which is a broad systemic issue statewide," says Garcia, who began her career teaching and administering special education programs and services.

Complicating the report from the PED, which it submitted to Garcia on June 29, was the ruling a month later by a state District Court judge that the state's education system is failing to provide at-risk students a basic education in violation of the New Mexico Constitution. The state has until April to come up with a plan for reforming its financing and management of school districts.

Garcia believes this ruling may provide more funding for SFPS to hire more therapists for students with learning disabilities, "but regardless of whether we get [increased] funding, we are legally bound" to act on the findings by the PED, Garcia tells SFR.

The findings came after a two-month investigation into preschool students' files by the PED's Special Education Bureau. The review was sparked by a complaint submitted by James Johnson, an SFPS employee who worked as the district's itinerant special education teacher when he lodged it.

The complaint encompassed all 147 students with learning disabilities enrolled in either the Head Start or United Way preschool programs. Both organizations contract with SFPS for ancillary services, such as speech, language and occupational therapy. Johnson tells SFR in an email that most of the students mentioned in the complaint were either his students "or would have been my students if they had been evaluated and given services."

Johnson alleged that the district was violating the terms of preschool students' Individualized Educational Plans, which federal law mandates for each public school student with a learning disability, by failing to provide therapeutic services and adequate transportation.

The complaint also alleged that SFPS persistently drags its feet in evaluating students for special education after receiving referrals from Head Start and United Way once the child enters district schools.

The PED says the district provides adequate transportation for preschool students with special needs. But it agreed with the rest of Johnson's allegations.

When the state reviewed several sample students attending preschool last year, it found that the children missed out on dozens of hours of speech, language and occupational therapy. It also evaluated classroom rosters from the preschools and concluded "that many classrooms had student/staff caseload that was higher than the maximum allowed."

Garcia told SFR that because there are several preschool programs operating on contract with SFPS, some of the missing hours could have been a result of mismatched scheduling between district and preschool staff.

"Those are some problems inherent when you contract with different agencies with different schedules," she says, "but nonetheless, we can't use those excuses."

The end of the report includes a timeline of corrective actions for the district to undertake, including a full audit of preschoolers receiving speech, language and occupational therapy and figuring out how to make up the lost hours.

Its scope does not include students in grades kindergarten or higher, where anecdotal evidence suggests some of these systemic problems for special needs students continue.

One Head Start employee in Santa Fe, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation, says she and her colleagues worry about the fate of students after they enter higher grade levels. The employee works at a Head Start program aimed at children ranging from 7 months to 2 1/2 years old.

"For children under three, there's so many wonderful resources for them in this city; we're really rich that way," the employee explains. "My concern is that it's so hard to get the public schools to keep on with that wonderful help."

Deann Garcia, a parent of two children with learning disabilities at El Camino Real Academy, says a dearth of speech therapists on staff is a problem for her children. She describes some of the therapy sessions as rushed.

"They don't give us enough time [in therapy] with our kids," Garcia tells SFR. "They tell them it's 60 minutes per week, but it doesn't seem like it. I mean, they need more funding, they need more therapists, they need more everything."

Another parent, who has a child with a learning disability enrolled in SFPS but asked to remain anonymous because she works for the district, complains about the quality of some of the therapists. Her son's occupational therapist, for example, would miss meetings where they discussed the boy's progress.

The therapist "would just drop into my son's class, when he really should have been doing individual time with my son, or maybe one to two kids together," the parent says.

Marilyn Montoya, a sixth-grade student at EJ Martinez Elementary School, also says that her speech therapist last year was ineffective. Her mother, Alisha, says the school told her the therapist was the only one available to students.

"She didn't really help because she would give me random stuff to do," Marilyn tells SFR. "I needed more attention because I only saw her once out of the month."

Even though the PED report only concerned preschool students with disabilities, Garcia says any parent unsatisfied with their child's experience should notify her or their school's administration.

"If those assertions are true, then the [therapists] are not fulfilling their responsibilities of what they're being paid to do," Garcia says, "and if they're a [contracted service], we need to follow up with the people providing the service."