DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. -- In this season of the Olympics, hundreds and hundreds of special needs children in DeKalb County are just now finding out that their beloved Special Olympics program has been all but eliminated for the 2012-2013 school year.
Other local Special Olympics programs across Georgia will continue.
But DeKalb County's school board is out of money and, as part of the severe budget cuts that were approved in June -- but still coming to light six weeks later -- the board is shutting down almost its entire Special Olympics program, the second biggest one in the state, in order to devote its limited resources to Special Ed classrooms.
"This is the one thing that he can do on his own," said Lucretia Bell of her son, a Special Olympics athlete, Monday night. "He is so proud that he does, he participates with that. So for this to be cut is a huge blow for the whole family. It's going to hurt him."
Bell dreads having to tell him that the one activity he loves most, where he excels, is going away.
The DeKalb County School Board is struggling to come up with the money just to keep Special Ed classrooms up and running.
Its Special Olympics program -- wildly popular and successful, with nearly 1,400 student athletes participating, the second largest in the state -- is now considered a luxury that DeKalb County Schools cannot afford, for now.
"Because of the tough budget year," said Jeff Dickerson, a school system spokesman, "we just really need to get as many teachers in the classroom as possible.... There will be some reduction, we don't know how deep, in the number of tournaments and competitions. But as soon as we can bring those back, we're going to. It's an important program."
Dickerson was not able to find out, Monday night, the exact cost of the program.
Parents are beginning to plead with the board to reconsider and keep the entire program in place.
As of now, according to sources within the DeKalb County school system, 17 of DeKalb's 18 Special Olympics sports programs have been eliminated. Track and Field remains.
There are 180 local Special Olympics programs across the state, including the one that DeKalb County Schools has run for decades.
The DeKalb superintendent's office is only hoping, and not promising, to bring its program back up to full strength maybe in the next year or two, as the budget allows.
Jeff Hajek of Special Olympics Georgia said he was not aware until this past weekend that DeKalb is cutting its program. He said that losing the participation of the second-biggest local Special Olympics program in the state -- losing most of DeKalb's 1,400 athletes -- will have "a huge impact to our program... Our mission is for our athletes to compete year 'round" in all sports, he said.
On Monday, staff members of Special Olympics Georgia wrote personal letters to each of the DeKalb County School Board members asking them to reconsider the cuts.
DeKalb's group "is a fundamental thread to the fabric of the community" one staffer wrote, "offering many opportunities for wellness, personal growth and inclusion for our athletes. When local and area competitions are no longer available to the athletes through the school system, they lose.... And many SOGA athlete families can't afford to travel to the next school program's practices and competitions [in other counties and school districts]."
"It's their community," Hajek said of the special-needs-athletes' attachment to the activities -- activities that they can find no where else. "It's a place where they form friendships, it's where they ultimately get to compete and be bold and show courage each and every day."
Lucretia Bell held back tears as she described how much DeKalb Schools' Special Olympics program has meant to her son and how he has benefited from it.
"It just gives him the opportunity to express himself in a manner that he enjoys, without worrying about people picking at him and thinking he's not adequate enough to stay with the team."
"It makes him proud," said his sister, Bell's daughter, Jaquesta Bell. "It makes him happy, it's giving him a confidence boost to say that he can do it."
Until this school year, there were two DeKalb County Schools' employees assigned to the Special Olympics program. One of them just retired. The other one was reassigned to other Special Ed classroom duties. Another employee was then assigned to oversee what is left of the program.
Here is the statement that Walter Woods of the Superintendent's office distributed Monday:
The Special Olympics program at DeKalb Schools is a wonderful experience for special education students, which allows them to compete in intramural activities like soccer, basketball and track and field.
Parents should know that this successful program is not being eliminated.
However, due to budget cuts across the District, there will be fewer tournaments and competitions this year.
In a difficult budget year, most of the District's resources, including teachers, must be focused on required, classroom-level special education, as well as in-school physical education.
But Special Olympics competitions will be offered for students throughout the year, including the major track and field event in the spring. [Parents say they're being told that Track and Field is the only sport left]. And as we move through the school year, the District hopes to restore more tournaments and competitions.
Also... it's important to know that no teachers have been eliminated. Teachers may have been reassigned to other special education classrooms, but no teachers have been eliminated.