NORWALK, Conn. — The number of Norwalk school children who need specialized services continues to increase but costs have stabilized, according to school leaders.
Contracted services are expected to be $1.6 million less in 2019-20 than in 2018-19 and out of district special education tuition is expected to be nearly $1 million less.
That’s the results of a three year, $3.6 million investment in a Special Education Development Fund to address the a series of blistering reports on Norwalk special education issued by CREC, the Capitol Region Education Council, Norwalk Public Schools Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch said Friday at the annual Board of Education retreat, in delivering a “final status report” on the 2015 CREC Special Education Review.
“I should really be calling this as one door closes another opens because our work is forever ongoing,” she said.
Board of Education members indicated that they will hire another education consultant to confirm the results of the three-year effort.
“You will remember that in 2015 CREC did a comprehensive study and they found six areas of significant weakness,” Goorevitch said. “They were staffing, recruitment and organizational structure, processes, procedures and compliance, teaching and learning program development and use of budget, a focus on SRBI development and implementation. They spent a lot of time telling Norwalk to take a careful look at the out of district placements and your use of a very large budget to support expensive contracts, and ended with a careful examination of parental communication and collaboration.”
NPS was serving 1,672 special education students as of May 21, a 14.3% classification rate she said. Due to better early identification, that’s 100 more students than in 2017-18 and that means more staff members.
“The number of private school placements has steadily decreased over the two years, starting with the high point in 1516. And this happened because of the city’s investment in three years’ Special Education Development. You allowed us to do extensive program development and hire over 60 staff members.”
Norwalk spends $42 million on special education, $35 million of that from the general fund, she said, calling it 18.4% of the overall budget.
“That is on the lower end, when you take a look at the cost of special education services,” she said. “I am not interested in running the Kmart of special education. And I don’t believe this district is interested in. What your investment was, was to put an end to an unstable budget that you could not forecast and to build appropriate effective services with capacity to deliver that to our students. And I believe we have done that. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Special Education is very complex. You know that. Have we made substantial improvement? Without question.”
“Remember going back four years ago before the Special Education Development Fund, the trajectory we were on was costs that were going up at 28.5% per year. And obviously what’s happened now is, you know, we’ve stabilized those costs,” Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said.
While the 2015 CREC report accused Norwalk of not knowing where its paraprofessionals are, “I know where every one of these people are by name and by level of training,” Goorevitch said. “So we, you know, we have gotten a handle on that.”
CREC recommended comprehensive training for special education aides; Goorevitch said that a year’s negotiations had gone into creating job descriptions for registered behavioral technicians.
“We take in the gold standard nationally of who should be working as a para professional with our students,” she said. “…we can be very, very proud of this very difficult accomplishment.”
There are three NEST classrooms in the district, “a nationally replicated model,” she said. CREC also pushed for more parental involvement and a parents advisory council has formed and “will be guiding us in the future in terms of priorities both for input at the next audit,” she said.
CREC is not expected to do that next audit.
“Our relationship with them was somewhat strained. Starting with their recommendation of Yvette’s predecessor, and then … following the contracting with them for the autism program, at Wolfpit (Elementary School),” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said.
Goorevitch led the creation of in-house autism services and “we actually spent more money with them for a lower level of service and, you know, parents were upset with that,” Adamowski said.
Cooperative Educational Services (CES) and the state Special Ed Resource Center (SERC) are options for the next study of Norwalk Special Education services, he said.
As for the three year effort, “As I said, we really should be calling this closing one door opening the other,” Goorevitch said. “… I really feel like we’ve got 10 years of work in the past two years, it’s been an exciting chapter in my career, we’re not finished, this is really complex.”