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Special education ombudsman sought for Las Cruces, Gadsden, Hatch school districts

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New Mexico’s new ombudsman for special education is seeking volunteers in all 89 New Mexico school districts – including Las Cruces Public Schools, the Gadsden Independent School District and Hatch Valley Public Schools in Doña Ana County – to make sure every student needing special education services has an ally to help navigate the system, the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED) said in a news release.

“One person cannot do this for the entire state,” said Michelle Tregembo, who was hired in June to run the one-person Office for Special Education Ombud as a division of the New Mexico Developmental Disorders Council (NMDDC). “We would love to have a volunteer ombud in every New Mexico school district so we could serve as the coordinating and training hub.”

The office, which officially opened last month, and the council were established by legislation passed by the New Mexico Legislature in 2021. Previously, special education students and families relied on a network of advocacy organizations to help them request services, negotiate individual educational plans (IEP) and raise concerns on behalf of a special needs child, the NMPED release said.

“This is a huge step forward to better serving our students with special needs,” NMPED Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said. “While the ombud’s office is not housed within NMPED, we consider her work part of our mission and will do everything we can to promote and support it. For starters, we are encouraging districts and special education directors to get involved and help recruit volunteers for this program.”

The council plans to recruit regional directors, hire more staff and train volunteers with a goal of having an advocate in each district, said NMDDC Director Alice Liu McCoy.

“We're developing a very rigorous training certification program,” McCoy said.

The only requirement to volunteer as a school district ombudsman is a desire to help special needs students and their families and a flexible schedule to attend IEP meetings, the release said.

“It could be anyone. It could be a parent. It could be a retired teacher. It might also be younger people who are interested in getting into education,” said Tregembo, a former vice principal of Volcano Vista High School in Albuquerque with 25 years’ experience in special education.

In 2020, students with disabilities made up 15 percent of state graduates and they had the lowest graduation rate of any group at 66.4 percent, NMPED said.

The special education ombud serves as an independent advocate and watchdog for public school students and provides comprehensive support for families navigating the special education system. Duties include ensuring that students and parents receive complete and accurate information about the student’s rights, adequate services to meet the student’s needs and timely responses when they raise questions or express concerns.

Students with disabilities were one of five student groups identified in a 2018 ruling in the Martinez-Yazzie consolidated lawsuit on education equity.  A New Mexico district court ruled the state was failing its obligation to provide adequate education to these student groups, which also included Native American students, English-language learners, highly mobile students and those who are economically disadvantaged, the news release said.

Nearly 300 special education teaching positions statewide remained vacant at the start of the 2021-22 school year, along with 280 vacancies for special education assistants, according to an analysis by New Mexico State University in September. That represents 28 percent of all teacher vacancies this fall.