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Norwalk special education budget is misleading, expert says

Norwalk BoE Feb. 5 2013 216

Margaret MacDonald, Ph. D, of the Capital Region Education Council talks to the Norwalk Board of Education Tuesday.

NORWALK, Conn. – It’s been a free-for-all for years in Norwalk’s special education department, which is understaffed and under-funded, according to an outside expert.

Margaret MacDonald, Ph. D, of the Capital Region Education Council, (CREC), presented the results of a study of the special education department (done from February to July last year) to the Board of Education on Tuesday, explaining in person the bad news: not much has improved since the last study was done, in 2008.

The ratio of staff to students is much less than in comparable districts, the report states. “Overall, Norwalk is operating a very lean and under-funded special education program. Norwalk’s percent of the budget spent on special education is less than the state and district reference groups (DRG) averages. In addition, the district budget figures that we used for the comparative study do not accurately reflect the actual special education expenditures. Sixteen percent of the 2011 budget is spent on general education expenses that would typically not be in a special education budget.”

Norwalk Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Elio Longo questioned the methods by which the statistics were collected, but MacDonald stood her ground.

“Even if we didn’t look at that comparative data at all, just from going into your schools, we would be able to say there are some things not happening,” she said. “Your case loads are high for your special ed teachers. Your case loads are high for your parents in terms of how many. There are enough other things. I would say to you a team of five people in 2008 said you were under-funded and in 2012 a separate team of five people said that.”

School principals have too much decision-making authority when it comes to special eduction, she said, leading to inconsistencies that make parents wonder if there is favoritism.

The group looked at two students with the same disabilities, but found that one of the children was getting five or six more hours of special education than the other one, simply because he or she went to a different school.

“I’m saying it’s kind of been a free for all,” she said. “There needs to be an authority behind the process.”

She recommended changing the job description of the special education director. “We have a director, and I believe special ed coordinators, who know the direction they want to go in very clearly and they don’t have the authority to be able to do it,” she said. “The problem does not lie with that department. It rests on their shoulders but they don’t have the ability to makes the changes.”

Pressed by board member Sue Haynie for specific technology recommendations, MacDonald suggested iPads, which are “almost universally a wonderful tool because you can put so many things on it.” It would be possible to borrow them for a CREC lending library for a period of time, she said, to see how well they work.

There are consequences to not having seemingly expensive tools, she said. “One of the things that was kind of disheartening, staff were saying, ‘We don’t bother to ask, because we know there’s no money for it.’ It’s mandated that if a child needs assistive technology then they should have it. … If you haven’t gotten in trouble on this yet you’ve just been fortunate, because really you’re not following the letter of the law.”

She was concerned about the process Norwalk uses to develop its school budget.

“We found the union president’s salary in the special ed budget in 2008,” she said. “It inflated the budget by a significant amount and the director didn’t know it was there. We didn’t do a through analysis this time. We didn’t go through every piece of the budget, but I will tell you that I don’t think the director of pupil services feels that she understands the district budget and how it gets reported to the state. Because that’s what she told me.”

The director is responsible for the special education budget but the decision to hire staff is made without her input, MacDonald said.

“I think the part of it that is fairly sad about this is you’re going to continue to go through special ed administrator after special administrator because of the way their hands are tied here,” she said. “ … you give them all the accountability — boy, if I were the director and I had to answer some of the questions that you guys had I’d be shaking in my boots because I wouldn’t have had the authority to make the decisions to make the changes.”

The educator said she was encouraged by the response she got from the board. “I thought your questions were good and to be honest with you I’m impressed that you care enough to spend this amount of time on it,” she said.

Margaret Watt, the mother of a child in special education, was glad the report was finally made public. She mentioned that it was requested by Director of Pupil Services Pauline Smith.

“I am optimistic about the current department because I think Pauline is trying to make a difference and her staff is really motivated,” she said. “Great ideas, but it was very clear in the report and it’s been clear to parents for years, if you’re understaffed and under-funded and you have these structural issues, there’s only so far you can go.”

Another special ed mom, Margaret Kozlark, thought the presentation “disheartening.”

She said, “I was here four years ago when they said the same thing and I just feel like unless the board will do what they have to do to support special ed we’re going to be here again.”

10 comments

Diane C2 February 8, 2013 at 7:13 pm

There are consequences to not having seemingly expensive tools, she said. “One of the things that was kind of disheartening, staff were saying, ‘We don’t bother to ask, because we know there’s no money for it.’

I’m alarmed to read a staff member saying they don’t bother asking for money for technology tools for special education because there is no money. How can this possibly be when the BOE received technology funding of $1,075,000 this year, another $500,000 recommended for the upcoming year, and still $895,000 recommended after that!
What are they doing with all this (my tax) money that the recommended ipads so many special ed students can engage and learn with are withheld???

LWitherspoon February 9, 2013 at 7:53 am

@Diane C2
Have you considered the possibility that the technology funding you mention went to technology that is not 100% dedicated to special education students? There are just over 11,000 students in Norwalk Public Schools and they all need some computer time as part of their education. The numbers you mention work out to about $45-90 per student, which isn’t a lot. It sounds like special education does need more technology funding, and the rest of the students probably do to, but I don’t think the alarmism contained in your comment is warranted.

Diane C2 February 9, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Nothing alarmismin asking the question that if there is no money for ipads for special ed, then exactly WHERE is the money being spent. Fair question.

LWitherspoon February 9, 2013 at 3:56 pm

@Diane C2
I agree, fair question, but the way you phrased it sounded like you felt it was a big scandal that there is a technology budget yet no money for iPads in special education.

Diane C2 February 9, 2013 at 5:16 pm

No scandal there. Perhaps even just a reluctance on the part of staff to ask given the contentious nature of past budgets. For all we know there could plenty to go around and the director simply never asked. On the other hand, I’d be really curious to know what the response would be to a request for funding.
I maybe should have used “disappointed” or “disheartened” versus “alarmed”.

BARIN February 9, 2013 at 6:39 pm

I dont know about scandal, but if there is no transparency it looks sketchy. I have spoken with parents of special needs children who really dont like the way things are handled. I would say alarmed, among others, would be a word the parents will use.
This is where we need that ECS increase.
Have they been transparent?

LWitherspoon February 10, 2013 at 1:00 pm

@DianeC2
I agree and share your curiosity.
@Barin
Has who been transparent? Did yoi try asking a BoE member or the district administration about the details of technology spending? That would seem like the logical thing to do before implying that there is a lack of transparency on this issue.

BARIN February 10, 2013 at 2:42 pm

@Spoon, WHAT?
I wasn’t implying anything and no I did not ask, I asked all of you, some of you may have the answer.
If you don’t know the answer say so.
Have the BOE and anyone else involved been transparent?
A simple yes, they have been or no they have’nt been would have sufficed.
I was simply asking if they have been transparent, was your reply a yes to my question?

LWitherspoon February 11, 2013 at 10:48 am

@Barin
I don’t know if they have or haven’t been transparent, but my impression is that most members of the BoE have the public good in mind. Apologies if I misunderstood but it seemed like you had jumped to the conclusion that there was no transparency when you said “if there is no transparency it looks sketchy.” I do not know the correct person to ask but I’m fairly certain that if you ask someone on the Board of Ed or a school finance official, more information about technology spending would be forthcoming.

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