Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007 | Unpaid bills charged to four San Diego-area school districts threatened this week to sink a tiny school that serves autistic youth, alarming parents who rely on the program.

Pioneer Day School was owed about $60,000 on Monday, staff estimated, a sum that represents nearly one-third of the Pacific Beach school’s annual revenue. After a flurry of media attention to the pint-sized school, districts began ponying up Tuesday, averting the crisis.

But the scare unsettled Pioneer parents and staff alarmed by the shakiness of public funding for the school. Now, upset parents say the system must change, forcing public schools to pre-pay tuition for Pioneer and similar schools.

Public schools pay private schools to educate special-needs students they can’t accommodate. The price can be steep: Pioneer charges districts or parents $15,000 to $21,000 per child, said Pioneer director Jim Leiner. But even parents paying private fees say it’s worth it — including mother Lissa Patrizi, who mortgaged her home “to the nines” to pay tuition for her autistic son Sean.

“No one else could get through to my son,” said Patrizi, who planned to home-school Sean before she discovered Pioneer, where her son flourished and quickly skipped a grade. “There’s no other choice for us. We can’t just switch schools.”

Similar contracts bind San Diego schools to 43 other non-public schools and agencies, which teach special education students whose needs can’t be met in their districts. The bills are due monthly, but some schools have delayed paying Pioneer since July, taxing the tiny school’s budget. Monday, Pioneer Day School was owed roughly $60,000 by Carlsbad, Coronado, Encinitas and San Diego Unified school districts, Leiner said.

Teachers have gone without paychecks, Leiner said. Bills piled up. There are few corners to cut at the “shoestring-budget” school, said Pioneer parents, whose children collect and recycle plastic bottles to pay for their end-of-year party.

“An expensive program like this — if you don’t pay, it’ll kill us,” Leiner said Monday. A year ago, when the school started enrolling public school students, Leiner was reluctant: As a teacher at another private special-education school in San Diego, he’d gone unpaid when public schools dragged their feet. “And that’s exactly what’s happening.”

San Diego Unified is scrambling to fix the problem before Friday, the deadline for Pioneer’s October payroll. Spokesman Jack Brandais described a perfect storm of delays: New software slowed down accountants’ work. School board meetings have dwindled, giving trustees fewer chances to approve contracts.

And timetables for certifying private schools don’t align with the fiscal year. Every January, schools are required to recertify, but their contracts are signed in July.

“We can’t work with anybody who doesn’t have a certification, so we can only write the contract for half a year,” said Roxie Jackson, the district’s director of special education programs.

“It’s a sad situation,” Brandais said, “and the superintendent is very interested in correcting this problem. Obviously we want to make sure we’re paying our bills.”

Making good on that promise, San Diego City Schools sent Pioneer a $6,706 payment for August tuition Tuesday, Brandais said. The superintendent’s special assistant, Arun Ramanathan, has personally taken on the issue, he added, and district staff worked through the weekend to solve the problem. More than $9,000 in July payments are still outstanding, Brandais said, but should be paid by Friday “at the latest.”

As of midday Tuesday, Pioneer had been repaid by Encinitas schools, expected to be repaid Wednesday by Carlsbad, and was waiting to hear back from Coronado schools.

After the close shave with closure, Liener is relieved — but not satisfied. Unnerved parents are pushing to remake the school’s contracts with outside districts, demanding that public schools pay up front for special education students. Monday night, a handful of anxious parents met at the school. Their new plan: Goad the state Senate to change the rules, so that contract schools such as Pioneer aren’t left footing the bill.

“The contract needs to be rewritten,” said Bruce Blackham, father of two autistic sons, including a 10-year-old Pioneer student. Monday night, he was bleary-eyed after an emergency meeting, called by the school to inform worried parents. “I spent 21 months fighting to get my son into this school, and then the first year I had to pay myself, in advance. … The public schools should have to pay in advance.”

Payment snafus aren’t common. In San Diego, most private schools and agencies contacted said they’d never had problems with school district billing; only one shared Pioneer’s complaints. The issue hasn’t mobilized the California Association of Private Special Education Schools, said spokesperson Janet Rodriguez, nor has it made headlines nationwide, said Michael Griffith, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States.

But when problems crop up, they can wreak havoc with schools’ budgets and discourage programs from taking on less-affluent kids, said James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Wendorf cited several New York special education schools that went unpaid by public districts for a year, and later quit serving publicly funded students.

“Some schools decide that it’s more trouble than it’s worth,” he said. “They only work with parents who have the means to pay private tuition — or have access to scholarships.”

Banyan Tree Learning Center, a San Diego school for students with Attention Deficit Disorder and other learning disabilities, hasn’t been paid since July for teaching four different students from multiple districts, assistant director Laura Johnson said. San Diego City Schools alone owe Banyan roughly $7,000, she estimated. Utility bills have gone unpaid as the school strains to keep its teachers in the black.

“I personally lose sleep,” Johnson said. “We try not to cut back or anything for our students or our staff. But sometimes our bills don’t get paid on time … Nobody will call me back. Sometimes the only thing that seems to get everyone’s attention is when we say, ‘We’ll stop providing services for those students.’”

The delays cost public schools, too. When school districts pay contractees late, they pay more — 1.5 percent more after 45 days, said Joan Elicker Richards, director of the Stein Education Center, which educates autistic and developmentally disabled children. Stein has had occasional problems with late payments from one California school district, but hasn’t had problems with San Diego Unified. Private schools have grown savvier about the payment fee, she said.

“In the past, some school districts refused to pay the penalty,” Richards said. “Now, they better understand the law.”

San Diego Unified could not determine how much money it spent in late fees to contract schools by press time Tuesday. Pioneer is asking for the late fee, Leiner said. But the extra money doesn’t compensate for the stress.

“For the giant schools who have a hefty reserve of funds, it’s great,” he said. “They can collect interest. We just need the money.”

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