Updated, 3:19 p.m.: Financial information from NPS CFO Tom Hamilton.
NORWALK, Conn. — It’s a wonderful document, Joanna Cooper said of a chart created by the Norwalk Public Schools Special Education Department to keep track of progress being made
“Norwalk is miles and leaps ahead in terms of organization and figuring out systems, and getting systems that are supposed to be in place, so that the system can sustain itself,” said Cooper, a long-time SpEd critic.
The document, a list of recommendations made by the Capital Region Education Council (CREC) and the progress made in addressing them, will be uploaded to the NPS website, Board of Education Ad Hoc Special Education Committee Chairman Yvel Crevecoeur said at last week’s Committee meeting. It will be updated every three or four months so parents can see “where we stand,” he said.
A $2.4 million fund was created last year, with $1.3 million from the NPS insurance fund and $1.1 million from the city’s fund balance, to address the recommendations in the 2015 CREC report.
NPS expects to spend $1,153,717 of the $1.2 million allocated for this year, NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said in a Monday email.
“The deadlines (in the CREC report) were very, very aggressive,” Crevecoeur said at the outset of the meeting. “Which is perfectly fine because there is an urgency, but at the same time the infrastructure isn’t in place yet with all the staffing. Just be aware, that if it seems we are behind, it’s not necessarily behind because of lack of effort it’s because we don’t have the infrastructure in place yet to actually address some of these goals.”
“Going through this, it was really good to see that we have completed so many different things on the CREC report and we have made good progress toward that,” (Co-Interim) Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Stacy Heilgenthaler said, referring to the work done to create the report.
It’s a little difficult to follow, as there are 18 entries under “Goal 1” and five under “Goal 2,” etc., but Heilgenthaler described much progress made in staff recruitment, hiring and retention, even if Lynn Toper did not stay long as the department’s leader.
The work has been done to revise SpEd administration job descriptions, extend their work years and assign them to school clusters, she said, explaining that there are three administrators at 10-month years and three working year-round, and it will stay that way because everyone is happy.
They were arranged in clusters, but when Toper left the deck got reshuffled, she said.
“We just had a meeting today, we are looking at how we can do that again,” Heilgenthaler said Tuesday.
The “sixth goal one,” hire an additional staff member last year and two this year, is in process, as Shapiro Blum did an audit in January and helped develop a contract for a contract secretary, she said.
Someone has been filling in but on June 1 the position will be advertised, she said.
“We are already starting to generate and get contracts ready for next school year,” and the money is being encumbered to meet those obligations, Heilgenthaler said.
NPS had an at least $3.5 million deficit last year in Special Education costs.
Contracts have been “really redone” with the help of an attorney and Hamilton, Heilgenthaler said.
Another goal is to develop an incentive program for hard to find staff.
“We don’t have incentive program, but do have our first AARC (Advanced Alternate Route Program for Special Education) cohort going through,” Heilgenthaler said.
AARC is a program for certified teachers to earn a cross-endorsement in Comprehensive Special Education. A group of seven elementary school teachers are getting the training, and NPS is looking for secondary teachers to go through the program next year, she said.
The 17th goal one is to implement comprehensive training for SpEd aides, and a group of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapists and paraprofessionals, from a variety of schools, are working on extended resources classes, she said.
“I am very excited about that, I think our paras need more training,” Heilgenthaler said.
All of the SpEd administrators have done the 5-day Connecticut SEED (System for Educator Evaluation and Development) training, learning how to write evaluations and provide feedback to staff, Heilgenthaler said, referring to the “completion” of the first goal three. Testing materials have been inventoried and NPS has the testing materials it needs, satisfying another goal three, she said.
There’s an 18-21 program and a therapeutic program at Norwalk High School, satisfying another entry under goal three, she said.
The 18-21 program will be moved, and High Road School will have less to do with the therapeutic program next year, she said.
“We will be supplying the teachers solely, then the following year it will be our program,” Heilgenthaler said.
CREC recommended that the district use a case study/clinic model to bring in experts to help with program development and individual case study.
“I think we are moving toward that in terms of using the expertise of our staff,” Heilgenthaler said. “… We are working more collaboratively as a district instead of in silos. I think that’s where we are in practice. … As we have grown our administrative team we have a wide variety of speech and language, special education teachers, psychologists, people who have worked in a variety of different settings, so we are doing that. So, it’s in process. I think that we can definitely grow that but I think the key is the communication is there, which wasn’t there previously.”
NPS has hired two BCBAs (Board Certified Behavior Analyst), she said.
“We are using less contracted staff,” she said.
Various entries under goal five refer to budgetary procedures; Heilgenthaler said the contracts have been cleaned up and every staff member has one.
She and (Co-Interim) Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Joe Russo sign off on all bills, some expenses have been appropriately moved from the SpEd budget to the operating budget, and all line items, like testing materials, that should be in the SpEd budget are there, she said.
“Thank you very much,” Cooper said. “It is really obvious that there is so much work going on, and that is always really exciting to see.”
Cooper, a certified teacher, served on the State Advisory Council on Special Education from 2004 to 2012.
In terms of organizational systems, “We are not behind. I think we are really leaps and bounds ahead because it’s mind-boggling that this place operated at all without them,” she said.
After the meeting, Cooper told NancyOnNorwalk that this is the first administration to take the CREC report seriously.
“It’s about systems,” she said. “They didn’t have any system. I don’t know how anything got done…. There is so much paperwork to do in SpEd. It buries you. … This place has been broken for all the years I have been in it. So, it really, it needed to start at zero.”
Hamilton on Monday provided two documents to show the status of the SpEd fund.
In an email, he said:
“Attached are two documents: The first is the update we provided to the Special Education Committee earlier this year showing the planned use of the SPED Development Fund for FY 2016-17 as of 3-15-17, and the second document is a print out from Munis on actual year-to-date expenditures that have been posted against the SPED Development Fund as of 5-1-17 to our financial management system. The first document breaks the expenditures down by the approved categories per the memorandum of understanding, so this document may be the more useful of the two documents.
“Based on the 3-15-17 report, we expect to spend $1,153,717 of the $1.2 million that had been allocated, and would propose to carry forward a total of $72,746, in addition to the $1.2 million that was appropriated in the Board budget in FY 2016-17 that was earmarked from the beginning to be carried forward into FY 2017-18 to fund the second year of the SPED Development Fund.
“The Munis print out shows the actual expenditures and encumbrances to-date that have been posted against the SPED Development fund. Expenditures to date total $676,090.88 and encumbrances total $103,159.60, for total financial commitments made this fiscal year and posted to our financial system of $779,240.”