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.”