Hearing that the district’s speech therapists were so short-staffed last year one had a caseload of 80 students, Del Norte Unified School District trustees rejected a proposal to eliminate an assistant position the existing speech therapists say makes their job more manageable.

Special Education Director Brooke Davis had requested the Board of Trustees to eliminate a speech language pathology assistant position while authorizing the district to recruit and hire another speech therapist, Human Resources Director Coleen Parker said. The rationale was that speech therapists can do more than an assistant, she said.

Though they decided against eliminating the assistant position, four trustees approved hiring the additional speech language pathologist along with several other positions.

But after Brenda Robinson, one of the district’s four speech therapists, said due to one assistant taking an extended leave of absence last year, a therapist had to do without. Though an assistant doesn’t reduce the therapist’s caseload, Robinson said they’re able to do the support work that the therapist would otherwise be tasked with.

The district currently has three full-time speech therapists and a part-time therapist. According to Robinson, DNUSD employed two more therapists via an independent contractor in January to try to reduce the number of students their existing employees were seeing.

“This position that Coleen (Parker) is submitting that we need, it keeps our caseload size down, but it doesn’t change the dynamics of how many speech therapists that we currently have employed,” Robinson said. “…we also need that SLPA to support the services for the children.”

According to Robinson, finding speech therapists and speech therapy assistants is extremely difficult. Speech therapy assistants have a Bachelor’s or an Associate’s degree and must obtain a state license, she said. All of the required certification takes roughly an extra year after the assistant gets their degree, Robinson said.

Speech language pathologists must have a master’s degree and a teaching credential, Robinson said. These professionals work in the classroom, often with students who are severely impaired, while their assistant documents student progress and processes and compiles data, she said. Robinson compared speech language pathology assistant to an instructional assistant that supports teachers in the classroom.

“We need the ones that are trained to do our jobs to help us with our jobs,” she said. “We were very short-handed this year in that regard and it caused some mental health issues in our speech staff department. It caused a one-week leave of absence for a speech therapist that was under a lot of stress due to this. She had 80 kids on her caseload. These are not the kinds of issues we want to address this year.”

In November, the district chose to hire two more speech language pathologists via an independent contractor because of the caseloads their existing employees were experiencing, Parker said.

Even with two contractors, the district’s three full-time therapists are working with 53, 51 and 49 students respectively, Parker said. DNUSD’s part-time therapist is working with 41 students, Parker said. The two contractors are seeing 59 and 42 students respectively, she said.

Despite Davis’s request for another speech therapist, Parker said she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to find one.

“We’ve had two applicants and one of them said no and the other one said ‘oh you’re not the Del Norte in San Diego? Sorry,’” Parker said.

Speech therapists can take caseloads and provide a greater service than an assistant, Parker noted. Though the district had three assistant positions last year, one was out for the entire year, she said.

Even if the school board had approved the request to hire an additional therapist, Parker said the district would still have to rely on contracted therapists because of the difficulty in hiring them. Other school districts are also having difficulty hiring speech therapists as well as occupational and physical therapists, Parker said.

“You have these agencies out there that are hiring these folks and they’re going out ot districts and contracting their services so they can pay a premium,” Parker said. “It makes me ill, but it’s what’s happening.”

Another challenge, according to Parker, a former principal at Del Norte High School, is there’s no criteria for determining when to stop speech pathology services to a particular student.

“I remember being at the high school and we got parents there clamoring for speech services,” she said. “Their child will never change when they’re 18 years old, but we have no system to deal with that.”

Tom Kissinger, the district’s new assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, who came from Burbank Unified School District, said the difficulty in recruiting speech therapists isn’t unique to Del Norte. Having an assistant and an additional speech therapist is important, but so is determining when students stop receiving services, he said.

“Students start with speech, what do we look at as the exit criteria and how long they stay?” Kissinger asked. “That’s a universal issue we’ve been dealing with down south as well.”

District speech therapists currently receive about $90,000 annually in salaries and benefits, according to Assistant Superintendent of Business Jeff Napier. The district had been paying $100,000 each for the two contracted speech therapists, he said.

Lori Standring is the district’s part-time speech language pathologist who had to work without an assistant last year. In addition to working with DNUSD students, Standring said she also provides therapy to students from local charter school Uncharted Shores Academy. Uncharted Shores Academy has two campuses and has recently received a large number of students who are home schooled, Standring said.

“I’m half time, but I have no assistant,” she said, adding that she put in extra work to maintain her case files, something that her assistant would have done. “That’s probably why I fell so far behind at the end of the school year with all the paperwork.”