put on the brakes

PEP okays special ed funding plan, despite requests for caution

As predicted, the Panel for Education Policy approved a budget formula Wednesday night meant to hasten the integration of special education students into general education classrooms.

But before the vote, Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez defended the spending plan — and the broader special education reforms that it is meant to facilitate — against charges that the city is asking schools to move too quickly on increasing inclusion of students with special needs. Critics say that Rodriguez’s departure from the Department of Education next month should cause the city to pause the reforms, which are set to go citywide this fall after being delayed once before.

Under the new formula, students who receive special education services for only a portion of the day would bring more city funds than students in self-contained settings for the entire day.

No one at the meeting opposed the objectives behind the Department of Education special education reforms. But some worried that lack of understanding about special education students could cause confusion for parents, students, and teachers alike.

“Everybody’s on the same page,”  said Wilfredo Pagan, the board member appointed by the Bronx borough president. “Most of us agree with the opportunity this reform brings to the table.”

“But let’s slow it down here and see how we’re going to re-approach this situation,” he said.

But Rodriguez said the integration of children with special needs cannot wait. She cited a large achievement gap between special education students and their general education peers, especially in graduation rates.

“By design, the work is urgent because the children haven’t done as well as we want them to do, and as they can do,” she said.

She said a pilot of the special education reforms in 250 schools resulted in increased integration of students with special needs into general education classes and a decreased number of students inappropriately labeled as having a disability. Past studies, she said, show special education students who spend time in standard classrooms achieve at higher rates.

But board member Dmytro Fedkowskyj questioned if one year of data from the pilot program was sufficient to justify such sweeping changes.

Rodriguez said it was, and that teacher training and a teacher task force — that met for the first time Wednesday morning — would help smooth the transition to increased integration. She said department officials were asking principals to focus on identifying teachers who would make good “matches” for classrooms that include students with special needs.

“We want to really focus on where the opportunities are and the teacher matches, and expand from there rather than change everything at once,” she said.

State Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, the chair of a subcommittee on students with special needs, spoke during the public comment period. A special education teacher for decades, Benedetto said he wholeheartedly supported the department’s reforms. But referring to a memo to principals that promised “intensive audits” of student placement decisions, Benedetto said he worries some of the department’s language sounds threatening,

“It could say, ‘Put the kids in the places we want them, or else,'” he said. “I’m sure that’s not the intention, but there are people out there who are worried,” he said.

The elected parent council from Manhattan’s District 2 wrote to Rodriguez with similar concerns last week. The council members also expressed concern that the budget formula would takes away money from special education students who need it the most.

But Michael Tragale, the Department of Education’s chief financial officer, stressed that schools will not find themselves with too little money to provide the services that students require.

“There is a sufficient money in existing per capita that will fund those programs, and the baseline budget will not be impacted,” he said.

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s panel appointee, worried that the changes to the special education program facilitated by the new budget formula would not be properly implemented without Rodriguez’s expertise. Rodriguez leaves her post at the end of June.

But Chancellor Dennis Walcott said he was not worried, and that Corinne Rello-Anselmi is well qualified to take over as deputy chancellor. Rello-Anselmi began her career as a special education teacher but most recently was working in a different branch of the department.

“We’re lucky to have a timely transition,” Walcott said.

The board also voted in favor of the co-location of Leadership Preparatory Charter School at I.S. 211 and P.S. 279 in Canarsie. Parents and Assemblyman Nick Perry expressed concern that sharing space could hurt I.S. 211, one of the only schools in the district with an “A” on its city progress report.

And parents and students from the Bronx New School, P.S. 51, insisted Walcott meet with them about the toxin whose discovery prompted the department to relocate the school last summer. The parents have been a persistent presence at public meetings. Walcott and Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm promised ongoing support for the families but urged them to seek aid from the Department of Health as well.

help wanted

Memphis charter office seeks to double in size to keep up with growing sector

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Stacey Thompson, charter planning and authorizer for Shelby County Schools, confers with director of charter schools Charisse Sales and Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

Shelby County Schools is about to double the size of its staff overseeing charter schools.

About a year after a national consultant called the district’s oversight deficient, the school system is seeking to reorganize its team and hire more help.

With 45 charter schools, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer but has only three people to watch over the sector — “lean for a portfolio of its size,” according to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA.

The charter office reviews applications for new schools, monitors quality of academic programs, ensures compliance with state and federal laws, and can recommend revocation for poor performance.

NACSA Vice President William Haft said the changes point to a school system that is becoming more sophisticated in collaborating with charter schools in order to improve innovation in the classroom.

Shelby County Schools “grew quickly as an authorizer,” he noted, and at a time when the district was also restructuring quickly due to the 2013 merger of city and county schools and subsequent exit of six municipalities.

“When you have just a handful of charter schools, naturally it’s just a small organization and you have an all-hands-on-deck mindset. … Everybody pitches in,” Haft said. “Now there’s an opportunity. And to their credit, the district is recognizing and … taking action to develop those structures that are now absolutely necessary.”

The new positions, which were advertised this month, would add more specificity to job responsibilities.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the restructuring is to meet the needs of a growing number of charter school students, including thousands under the state-run Achievement School District who eventually will return to local governance.

“This is part of the strategic staffing plan …,” Leon said. “This team will be directly responsible for ensuring that children in our community have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and for moving forward the district’s priority around expanding high quality school options.”

The hires also are designed to boost the relationship between charters and the district, which have become increasingly strained over funding and processes. Last spring, confusion over the district’s charter policies came to a head with the revocation of four charters.

Shelby County Schools authorized its first three charter schools in 2003, one year after the state legislature passed a law allowing nonprofit operators to open schools in Tennessee. Though the sector has swelled to 45 schools, its oversight office has only grown from two to three staff members.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ education landscape, the district has sought to step up its oversight of them. Last year, Shelby County Schools issued its first-ever report on the state of charter schools in Memphis. A charter advisory committee also was created to find ways to improve oversight and collaboration in academics, financing and facilities.

Coming out of that committee is a voluntary authorizer fee. Many Memphis operators have said they are willing to pay the fee in exchange for better oversight and collaboration, including adding more staff to the charter office.

“(Charter leaders) look forward to continuing to work with them and others that the district looks to add to the office in order to continue the steps to becoming a high quality authorizer for SCS charter schools,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center and co-chairman of the charter advisory committee.

Numbers game

Aurora school board balks at budget-cutting plan that would likely increase class sizes

A college algebra course at Hinkley High School in Aurora. (Photo by Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post).

The Aurora school board on Tuesday rejected increasing student-to-staff ratios as a way to cut the budget, a move that would likely lead to more crowded classrooms and fewer teachers.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn was seeking the board’s guidance on the idea, one of several under consideration to trim the 2017-18 budget by about $31 million.

More than 100 teachers, parents and community members packed the board meeting to speak out about the impact of increased class sizes — and the board told Munn to look elsewhere.

Munn presented the request saying the district would try to change staff ratios as little as possible. While more modest budget cuts this year have not been felt in classrooms, Munn said it may be inevitable. The district is facing a budget crisis due to record enrollment declines, among other issues.

Staff salaries make up by far the largest share of school districts’ budgets.

“If we take 70 percent of our budget out of the conversation, then that leaves very little room to address what are significant unknowns that are in front of us,” Munn said.

In Aurora, staffing ratios are used to calculate the largest portion of school budgets.

Opponents’ criticism of the plan at Tuesday’s board meeting contrasted to what district officials gathered during a community input process. Of four budget-cutting scenarios, one that included the staff-ratio increases received the most first-choice votes from participants.

District officials in laying out the scenarios claimed that increasing the staffing ratio would not directly increase class sizes.

“Personnel dollars are allocated to schools and then principals make staffing decisions,” it stated.

On a practical basis, however, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion, according to educators and community members who spoke during Tuesday’s public comment.

“I currently have 31 students in my home room,” one teacher told the board. “The more students I have, the harder my job becomes.”

Board president Amber Drevon said that because the increased student-to-staff ratios had more than a 90 percent chance of increasing class sizes, she would rather not change the ratios.

“I think our class sizes are too big as it is,” Drevon said.

Four of the six board members at Tuesday’s meeting said the same, asking Munn and district administrators to take a closer look at all other options, including some scenarios submitted by the public.

District officials have sought to clarify that the district is not bound to pick any of the drafted scenarios — including the ones they drafted — or to follow them as presented.

“The scenarios were meant to drive a community conversation,” the district’s budget website now states. “They were NOT designed to represent specific courses of action.”

The district is still able to present other cuts later this spring, said Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman.

In part, the district says the cuts are needed because of a declining trend in student enrollment, and in part because of a potential drop in property taxes that would mean less local money for schools. The district is also looking to start building up its reserves — basically, rainy day money — instead of continuing to dip into the fund.

In the current school year, the district has already made more than $3 million in administrative cuts and authorized use of reserves to prevent other mid-year cuts.

Board member Dan Jorgensen asked the district to consider using dollars from reserves once again for next school year. At the end of the 2015-16 school year, the reserves stood at more than $15 million.

The board also had a brief discussion Tuesday insisting that they had the right to analyze the budget line by line, against the advice of the district’s attorney citing the district’s governance policy. Board members said they did not want to analyze the budget that way, but said they would if they needed to.

“Everything is on the table,” Drevon said. “We’re a long way away from making any final budget decisions.”