A long-awaited reorganization of Polk County Public Schools’ exceptional student education department is underway after at least a decade and a half of complaints that students were not receiving the legally mandated services they needed to learn.

In her first major presentation to the School Board since being hired in June 2022, Tammy Cassels, the district’s new assistant superintendent for learning support, made several requests including immediate funding for 20 new ESE positions and five new behavior/mental health positions.

The proposed positions include six speech therapists who could potentially start as soon as this school year, if the board votes favorably at its March 28 meeting. 

Cassels wants the board to approve a prorated sum of about $90,000 for the final quarter of the fiscal year – “if the positions could be advertised and filled” – to establish the positions immediately and fund them through June. She will seek an extra $3.1 million to continue them next year as part of new regional learning support teams. 

The added funding would be offset by money generated from thousands of new students expected in the new school year and, in part, by seeking Medicaid reimbursement for eligible services. 

“We’re currently bringing in about $4 million in Medicaid reimbursement,” Chief of Staff Jason Pitts said. “Looking at other districts, it’s estimated that we’re bringing in about 30% to 40% of what we could receive in Medicaid funding.”

That means that PCPS has missed out an estimated $6 million to $7 million dollars in Medicaid reimbursement a year over many years.

Creating the positions is not the same as filling them, and board members acknowledged that the district has struggled to fill vacancies. But the prospect of a surge in funding and attention is welcome news to Jessica Leblanc, whose 5-year-old son Marshall is enrolled in an ESE voluntary pre-kindergarten class at North Lakeland Elementary. 

“He’s almost completely nonverbal,” Leblanc said. According to his individual education plan – also known as an IEP — Marshall is supposed to receive at least 30 minutes of speech therapy weekly, but Leblanc said he didn’t have a single session from the time he started school on March 15 until October 10 of this school year because of staff shortages.

That’s especially frustrating because Marshall is at an age when experts say early intervention is critical. “There is a window when we can reach him and hopefully get as much as we can before he’s past that point,” Leblanc said. “I have been fighting for that since he was 3 years old.”

“I finally got him an IEP and into ESE, and then was told he wasn’t getting therapy … It was like a kick in the gut,” she said. “It’s awful to tell a special needs mom that they don’t have what your kid needs.”

“It’s awful to tell a special needs mom that they don’t have what your kid needs.” 

Jessica LeBlanc of Lakeland

Superintendent Fred Heid acknowledged that the district has been falling short when it comes to special education.

“The ESE department was an area that was brought to my attention by the school board, parents, and staff. All expressed concerns with its current structure and operations,” Heid told LkldNow. “I feel that the system needed to shift from being compliance-driven to being compassion-driven with a focus on students getting services they need. The department was also understaffed and is one of the reasons we have a new school allocation model that will allow us to address school level staffing needs in subsequent years.”

The overhaul was outlined in a School Board workshop meeting on Feb. 28.


Cassels, along with District Chief of Staff Jason Pitts, went over the changes with the School Board during a work session.  Those include adding:

  • Seven Pre-K educational diagnosticians
  • Six speech language pathologists
  • Three local assistive technology specialists for students who need to use a device to help them learn. It brings up the number to five – one for each district.
  • One each: ESE Pre-K teacher, a director for compliance and an assistant director for compliance

They are creating teams to evaluate students, including bilingual teams. At the end of March, PCPS human resources department is recruiting teaching and non-instructional positions in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

PCPS teachers start at $47,500 and all PCPS jobs pay at least $15 per hour. 

In addition, they are adding a parent liaison to the department to help facilitate fixing any issues that arise.

“A parent liaison would be in a position to ensure that we are able to contact parents,” Cassels said. “There are a lot of concerns that are coming our way and we want to make sure that we are providing excellent customer service and contacting parents and making sure that they feel heard so that we can make sure we provide support in any way possible as we move forward.”

Cassels is removing nine of 92 ESE facilitators – what used to be called local education agency liasons – to provide equitable services at each school.

“We have some schools with more than 300 ESE students and schools with less than 100 ESE students and they both have one facilitator,” Cassels said.

But she is adding 10 social workers, for a total of 45. In addition, she is regionalizing where those social workers will deal with children, assigning them to schools in one area. There will be between eight and 12 social workers dealing with elementary and middle school students in each region and eight dedicated to each high school regional team.  

School Board member Lisa Miller, a longtime advocate for special needs students, wanted to make sure that middle schoolers would be helped in a timely manner and that there would be funding to pay for students who don’t necessarily have an Individual Education Plan or a 504, designating them as having a disability, either now or in the past, or even perceived as having a disability.

“We have behavior problems, especially in middle schools,” Miller said, looking at around at her colleagues. “Everybody’s nodding. I get phone calls almost daily. So this will increase behavior supports to the students not only with disabilities, but students who do not have disabilities, but have concerning behavior?”

Cassels said it would.

“We’re being creative in that, making sure that we can address the needs of all students,” Cassels said.

The total cost of the changes, including salaries and benefits, is estimated at an additional $3 million annually. Pitts is anticipating that Medicaid reimbursement will make up the shortfall.

The federal IDEA allocation for the 1922-23 school year is $25.7 million. That includes salaries and benefits, supplies and equipment, private transportation, contracted services, and indirect costs.

Cassels took a moment during the presentation to reassure current staff.

“I just want to make sure that all of the staff and the department understand that there will be no displacements based on the current numbers,” she said. “I know that’s always a concern, so I wanted to make sure that that’s clear. Even though roles and responsibilities may look different, there’s no one that will be displaced as far as this goes moving forward.”

Polk Schools’ Issues

IEP compliance has been an issue since at least 2007, when a review of the district by the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative Education Development Center found that there was concern as to whether the services and supports in the IEPs were being implemented as required by law.

The review team “was left with considerable concern as to whether the services and supports delineated in the IEPs were actually being delivered with the fidelity and consistency required,” the report stated. “There was acknowledgement among the individuals and groups interviewed that principals and teachers bear the responsibility of ensuring the IEP services are actually being delivered, but there seemed to be no systematic way of determining if this is indeed happening.”

A review of a dozen complaints parents made to the Florida Department of Education’s Bureau of Exceptional Student Education and Student Services since 2014 showed the Polk district violated state or federal laws, regulations or policies at least 10 times.

In 2017, a district self-assessment of its “best practices for inclusive education” showed that the district was failing to meet or only partially meeting 20 out of 30 goals.

A 2018 on-site monitoring report by the Florida Department of Education showed students and parents were alerting officials that IEPs were not being implemented or followed.

A 2019 investigation by this reporter while at The Ledger showed that district officials have no system in place — beyond spot checking random records once a month — to ensure that every special education student’s individualized education plan, known as an IEP, is being followed by educators. And numerous parents and students told The Ledger they were not getting their services.

Following reports in The Ledger, a May 2020 $225,000 audit of the district’s special education department showed that while it did some things well, including creating a culture of trust between students and staff, it needed improvements. The audit found that IEPs were not being followed and that there was still no way to track compliance, ESE teachers needed to be recruited and hired, students’ social, emotional and behavioral issues needed to be addressed proactively, a team approach needed to be created and that the district needed to improve communication to parents, teachers and staff. The report also recommended reconfiguring the district’s organization structure.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The federal government requires all school districts to provide the services outlined in a child’s IEP, but has never fully funded the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1974. The law was created to ensure that all children, regardless of ability or handicap, receive a free and appropriate public education.

A 2022 Brookings Institute report found that “Congress has showed a renewed interest, and possibly even the political will, to put federal appropriations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) on a glidepath toward ‘full funding.’ From its inception in 1974, IDEA authorized federal funding for up to 40% of average per-pupil spending nationwide to pay a portion of what it costs to provide special education services for students with disabilities. Yet in the more than four decades since the law was originally enacted, federal funding has never reached this target.”

As a matter of fact, it hasn’t even come close. The grant formula is comprised of two parts: a base funding amount equivalent to what each state received for fiscal year 1999, when the law was updated; and a population-poverty calculation that allocates all new appropriations above the base amount according to a states’ relative child population and poverty counts for the prior academic year. After these calculations, a state’s allocation may be further adjusted to protect states from receiving significantly less funding than the previous year.

The average IDEA grant differs wildly among states, the report shows — $3,537 in Vermont in fiscal year 2020 vs. $1,732 in Nevada. States with fewer students in need can spend more on those students versus a state like Florida, with a higher population of special education students.

While some members of Congress are proposing adding 20% in funding for IDEA, The Brookings Institute report advocates changing the funding formula instead.

ESE programs and related services covered under IDEA include:

  • Assistive Technology
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Deaf/Hard of Hearing
  • Developmental Delay
  • Dual-Sensory Impairment
  • Established Conditions
  • Emotional/Behavioral Disability
  • Home-bound or Hospitalized
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Language Impairment
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Other Health Impaired
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Physical Therapy
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech Impairment
  • Visual Impairment: Blind and Partly Sighted
  • Traumatic Brain Injury

ESE also includes programs for intellectually gifted students.

Toxic Culture

In comments to LkldNow, Heid addressed the long-perceived toxic culture within the department, along with the frustration that some school district employees, parents and students feel within the system.

“We are hoping to change the culture within this department and work to ensure that these students get more opportunities to succeed,” Heid said. “I hope to address staffing issues to the point that we can accomplish more, and our current staff can have some of the burden lifted from them. Finally, I am hoping that parents have a positive experience with the department and our processes aimed to support their students.” 

Heid said his office has received complaints from parents and guardians, mainly stemming from the timeliness of their child being evaluated or getting an IEP or 504 designation. Florida rules state that the district has 60 school days to evaluate the child, but that does not include weekends, holidays and summer vacation.

Frederick Heid

We are hoping to change the culture within this department and work to ensure that these students get more opportunities to succeed

school superintendent fred heid

When asked why the changes were coming now, toward the end of the school year, Pitts said that Cassels’ predecessor abruptly left last year and she was given time to review the structure of the department and to understand Polk County Public Schools before making changes. 

“Over the past couple of months, the plan had been submitted and reviewed by senior staff, and the final product was presented at the board meeting,” Pitts said. “We promised the board they would see a restructure during the current year. Ideally, the reorg would already be in place.   By approving now, we can fill the necessary new positions to get in place before next school year …  My question would be: ‘Why NOT do it now to improve the services provided to our students?'”

The district, like most others throughout Florida, has had a difficult time filling ESE positions.  The district currently has 27 openings, including for an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, three ESE pre-K teachers, a hearing teacher, a varying exceptionality teacher and 16 openings for ESE paraeducators.

The district had been forced to hire teachers “out of area,” meaning they are licensed to teach, but are not certified to teach special education. For instance, parents of students at Doris Sanders Learning Center, one of several “center schools” that educate some of the most profoundly disabled students in the district, recently received a letter home informing them that multiple teachers at the school are “out of area.”

An ESE teacher, who asked not to be identified, said the district must stop demanding that ESE teachers perform other duties throughout the school day.

“Until they find a way not to make ESE teachers do 547 things other than the position — like testing, subbing, et cetera — nothing else will make a damn bit of difference,” the teacher said, employing some hyperbole. “One time I was pulled from my students to go to Enterprise and pick up a rental van for the (sports) team. I have subbed, tested, run off-campus errands, chased students, babysat students, and and and more than any other teacher on campus.”

Cassels was hired in June 2022 as part of Heid’s effort to reorganize the department. She came to the district from Sarasota County Public Schools, where she had been the supervisor of exceptional student education.

Bernard Wells, a retired ESE staffing specialist, has repeatedly criticized Heid at multiple School Board meetings, going so far at the Feb. 28 meeting to imply Heid is participating in nepotism and misappropriating or even embezzling money.

“I spoke to you about the mass number of knowledgeable ESE staff who have been run out, intimidated out, harassed, out, booted out and just plain put out of the district. Most of these positions have not been replaced, and the services that the ESC students are supposed to have not been received,” Wells said. “Mr. Heid, where’s that money? How is the money being utilized for those services? That money has already been received by the district, but the services are not being provided. Is this an intentional act to get funds from the federal and state government to be utilized for purposes other than students with disabilities, such as, perhaps, paying for top level staff that the superintendent has brought in? We are aware of the numbers game that has been played here. My question rhetorically would be if misappropriation is the same as embezzlement?”

Heid sent LkldNow a detailed spreadsheet, stating that he has never hired a relative and that of the 43 people serving on the executive cabinet 36 (or 84.7%) were original employees of PCPS prior to his arrival.

“Of the nine senior administrative vacancies I inherited, only one was filled with an outside candidate during the 2020-21 school year,” Heid said, referring to Deputy Superintendent Wayne Green, with whom he had worked at the Florida Department of Education.

In addition, Heid provided data on the number of minority administrators working under him, totaling 126 out of 354 — eight more minorities than under his predecessor.

Polk County Public Schools also hired Anne Pasco as its new assistant superintendent of information systems and technology, who had previously worked with Heid in Illinois.

“Mrs. Pasco was hired at the start of the 22-23 school year by Dr. (Tina) Barrios and (Joe) McNaughton,” Heid said. “I did work with Mrs. Pasco previously, but was not involved in her selection. However, she is only one of two hires known to me that serve on Cabinet. Hardly an indicator of nepotism.”

As for misappropriation or embezzlement, Heid categorically denied that.

“There are countless checks and balances within the school system and Florida funding mechanisms that serve to prevent any such action. The school district has both an external and internal auditing process that ensures that nothing is left to chance and that any/all indications of fiscal concern or anomalies are investigated. In addition, both the internal and external auditors only report to the School Board which eliminates any possibility of my office accessing funds illegally. Finally, both the state and federal governments have auditing processes for the funds we are provided.”

No audit has shown any financial malfeasance on Heid’s part.

Wells worked with Diane Taylor, the former supervisor of exceptional student education. She has lodged an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against Heid after being moved from that position to senior director of school improvement, a districtwide position that involves helping struggling or failing schools improve their grades.

Heid refuted Taylor’s complaint, point by point, documents from PCPS show.

“As a Hispanic and someone who has dedicated the majority of his career working to improve outcomes for at-risk students, I find it incredibly disingenuous and insulting to be accused of discriminatory practices,” Heid wrote in response to Taylor’s complaint against him. “To date, there has NEVER been a complaint or allegation made against me for any form of discrimination.”

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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