Struggling to get in the door

Abbie Vansickle

When Mary Mrugalski’s daughter started school, Mrugalski knew times would be difficult. Working nights at a local radio station, she would get home just in time to see her daughter, Nura Aly, off to school in the mornings.

For a while, Mrugalski thought she had it all worked out.

But after Nura, who uses a wheelchair, began to ride the special-needs bus to school, the problems began. The bus was consistently late to Nura’s school – Martin Luther King Jr. Experimental Laboratory School.

Evanston/Skokie School District 65’s budget cuts have made life even more difficult for the Mruglaskis and other local families with a disabled child.

“I kept sending her in the bus and trying and trying to get that solved,” she said. “Everybody kept passing the buck around and around. They could get the buses of able-bodied kids to school on time. I thought, there’s got to be a way to do this.”

So she began driving Nura to King Lab, 2424 Lake St., herself. Everything was fine until the elevator, Nura’s only transportation to many of her classes, broke down, leaving Nura and her peers stranded on the first floor. Mrugalski talked with administrators, who decided to excuse Nura from class when the elevator wasn’t working.

This solution didn’t sit well with Mrugalski.

“They said she just wouldn’t go to her upstairs classes, so I physically carried her up the stairs,” she said.

The school then hired teacher Jim Bensdorf to work in Nura’s special needs program and although staffing shortages remained, many of the problems were fixed, Mrugalski said.

But Nura still faces difficulties at King Lab.

Last Friday, Mrugalski had to take off work to drive Nura to a school field trip because the handicap-accessible bus never arrived.

This year, District 65’s budget cuts are raising more concerns about the future of the special needs program.

Although school board members emphasize the funding cut was minimal – only $200,000 was cut from the $12.5 million District 65 special needs program – questions remain about how money can be taken back from a program already struggling to make ends meet.

“One of my friends has an aide with him in the classroom but I think the budget cuts may affect the attention he gets,” Nura said. “If that happens, many of my friends would not be allowed an equal education.”

School board member Greg Klaiber said the district’s choice to eliminate the positions of two school psychologists and two social workers should cover most of the budget needs.

“By law we cannot eliminate the full-time classroom aides for special needs students, but as far as other classroom aides, we just don’t know,” he said. “I’m hoping those won’t be cut, but let’s wait and see.”

Valerie Gudgeon, District 65’s director of special services, said administrators would not decide the special education cuts until next year’s class sizes have been determined.

“We’ll have a better chance to see the aide situation in the fall,” she said. “The board understood the fact we have students with significant needs here and they require a great deal of attention.”

Gudgeon, who has been with the special needs program for less than a year, also said she needs to gain a more complete understanding of the program before making any staff cut decisions.

Bensdorf said he’s concerned about the implications of the budget cuts for his program. But all he can do right now, he said, is to cross his fingers and wait.

“It’s kind of disconcerting that (the teachers) don’t have any more information,” he said. “Many of us are left in the dark about what will be cut.”

Though the budget cut is smaller than the $500,000 initial proposal, the cuts are still significant, Bensdorf said. He’s worried the pupils in his program will get “watered-down service.”

Bensdorf said the school’s nursing staff, which consists of one registered nurse and a certified nurse’s assistant, is simply not enough to maintain an adequate level of medical care for the children. However, budget constraints have put nursing hiring on the back burner.

Klaiber said the cuts have come as a shock to many because the school recently has not had to face similar situations.

“You never want to cut programs,” he said. “The last time we had to make these kinds of cuts was in the 1970s. In the last three years, we had fund balances, but we could not cover this deficit anymore. We couldn’t let it go and risk the future of the school.”