NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk school budget talks began recently with a promise for a maintenance budget, meant to simply maintain the programs the district has underway. They’ve progressed with a presentation highlighting the rising cost of Special Education.
Outplacement costs are increasing “because it’s been so hard to staff a lot of these programs,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said. Transportation costs are going up as well and “inflation has also taken a toll on our associated costs.”
With that, NPS Executive Director of Specialized Learning Bridget Adams, who was appointed in September, and Estrella heaped praise on the money spent in 2017-2019 to cut SpEd outplacements. The $3.5 million invested in the Special Education Transition Fund may have saved Norwalk as much as $48 million so far, Estrella said.
While there are 99 students in outplacement for 2021-22, it could have been 196, Adams said, in the Nov. 15 discussion.
Estrella said NPS is thinking about additional programs “that will allow us to bring home more students and add additional savings to the district but in turn, also give our students an opportunity to be with their peers.”
NPS “may need to shift and evolve and grow to meet the needs of students today,” Adams said.
Adams did not present many dollar figures in her prolonged status review of Norwalk’s SpEd program. One graph showed that the cumulative increase in costs of four outplacement sites since 2018-19 is $47,000. A fifth unnamed site has jumped in cost from $112,269 to $298,000.
The “prevalence rate,” the ratio of individuals with disabilities to their nondisabled peers, is increasing in Norwalk, as it is statewide, Adams said. But, she emphasized, it’s not guaranteed that referrals result in IEPs, the Individualized Education Program that guide SpEd services.
“We’re incredibly careful about the appropriateness of eligibility,” she said.
In 2015-16, 52.8% of students referred for possible special education services were determined to be eligible but in 2021-22, “We celebrate 38.7% of individuals are now receiving educational benefit through an IEP,” Adams said.
Take that stat through the prism of another metric: referrals are increasing.
Estrella said families felt they needed to make the referral because schools weren’t, but her administration has emphasized Scientifically Research Based Interventions (SRBI). If, after multiple tiers of interventions a student hasn’t improved, the next step is a referral for further evaluation. “That process has increased the number of referrals coming from the school, not necessarily coming from the parent.”
Data, not fuzzy anecdotal information, is used to measure progress and is “a tool to develop smart goals for the student to focus on, and work on,” she said.
“The goal of Special Education is to provide students with the tools that they need, so that they can then transition into the mainstream and reacclimate with their general education peers. It’s not supposed to be ‘you’re in special education and you maintain, you stay in that place,’” Estrella said.
Adams spoke of students transitioning out of Special Education. This year, 76 students have exited, she said.
She herself helped design a literacy program at West Rocks Middle School with “a specific group of individuals in mind,” who “are now integrated into the general education program at their neighborhood high schools, perhaps a success story,” she said.
Norwalk does better than some outplacement programs, she said. “We have districts that will call and solicit the opportunity to enroll their students in our programs. That’s a really interesting concept to consider as we move forward and conceptualize building and developing and growing programs.”
Another problem: students move into the district needing services or already committed to tuition cost bearing schools, challenging budget planning, BoE member Sheri McCready Brown noted.
“I have read headlines that the financial impact of COVID did result in families pulling their children out of private schools where they were receiving these services and moving them into public schools,” BoE member Erica DePalma said.
NPS is working to integrate Special Education costs with the student-based budgets this year, Estrella said. “We want schools to feel that these students are just as part of the school community as their general education peers.”
Overall, SpEd is about 20% of the school district budget, she said.
“Some students cost 20 times as much as one general education peer, or one special education student being serviced in-house. So a lot of our increased costs is associated with the out of district placement,” Estrella said.
One student’s outplacement “could be to $200,000-$300,000 a year,” McCready Brown said.
“These outside agencies are costing sometimes double what they were costing us in previous years,” Estrella said.
It’s not just outplacements. There are vacancies for various reasons in difficult-to-fill related positions, speech and language pathologists, psychologists and social workers, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Rob Pennington said.
“Sometimes bringing in a contractor to support students can actually cost triple of what it would cost for in-service educators,” he said. “… We end up having to contract with agencies around the state, where they will send someone that can work with a school for a month, two months, three months, a year if need be.”
Estrella said NPS is constantly recruiting and is “faring better, not worse in terms of the number of vacancies that we have in the districts similar to ours.” But it’s going to be an uphill battle as districts offer incentives and “retention will be a concern for the upcoming school year and throughout this year if people start offering more than what we are currently budgeted to provide.”