lowest common denominator

City might take special ed funding back from schools midyear

Changes meant to help schools overhaul their special education programs have instead left principals scrambling for a budget fix.

Middle and high school principals are learning this week that the Department of Education is planning to take back thousands of dollars earmarked to help their schools serve students with special needs — over a budget technicality.

“Students with disabilities are the ones who lose out in this — and schools’ ability to provide what [students] need,” said a principal whose school faces a cut.

The issue stems from a new funding formula adopted this year as part of the Department of Education’s efforts to bring students with disabilities out of self-contained classes whenever possible.

Previously, schools received funding based on the number of their students assigned to different kinds of special education classes. Students in self-contained special education classes brought one amount, while students who were pulled out of general education classes for extra help brought another. But as the department has moved to a more flexible model, where students can switch among types of settings based on their needs, the funding model had to change.

The new model allots funds based on the percentage of time students spend in each kind of special education class. Students who spend more than 60 percent of their time in Integrated Co-Teaching classes — which mix special education and general education students and have two teachers, one with special education certification — each bring their school $7,100. Students who spend less time in the classes, which are expensive to run, bring their schools fewer dollars.

Schools programmed students this year with the funding formula in mind. So many middle and high school principals were surprised this week to learn that their calculations were off and they would have to relinquish the very funds they had used to create the integrated classes this year.

Principals said they calculated that students with four Integrated Co-Teaching classes and two other classes, a common arrangement, would land solidly over the 60 percent threshold. More than half a dozen principals in four boroughs each told GothamSchools that they made the same calculation.

But they left physical education classes out of the equation. The Department of Education includes P.E. in its calculation, meaning that students with the same schedule land just short of the cutoff. Out of a schedule of seven classes, four integrated classes constitute only 57 percent of a student’s time.

Principals said they are just finding out this week about the department’s math — and the $2,000 per miscalculated student that schools might have to give back.

Some schools could lose well over $100,000 from their budgets in the middle of the year.

“No one advised us this is how this is going to play out,” said a high school principal, who added that school administrators learned about the issue on Monday during a phone call with officials from the school’s network. Other principals also reported being surprised by the potential budget crunch this week, when the Department of Education held a budget meeting for network officials.

Department officials said the budget materials that principals received this year stated clearly that only lunch should be excluded from the time calculations. They said the issue is arising now because, as part of a “data clean-up,” the department is asking schools to certify that information about students’ schedules is correct in two different places by Jan. 14.

The information in the two systems — the department’s attendance system and its new Special Education Student Information System — doesn’t always match up, principals said. They said they worry that the discrepancies could cause their schools to lose funding even for students who do hit the 60 percent requirement.

“Your school will not receive funding for student services that are not properly coded,” this week’s Department of Education bulletin cautioned principals.

Because any adjustments would come in the middle of the year, principals could not cut teachers, even though that’s what the special education funds were used to pay for. Instead, they would have to slash everything else.

“It could be a real disaster,” said one person who works in a city school.

Department of Education officials said principals could appeal the take-backs.

“We understand that some principals may have concerns about their school’s budget and we will make sure to address those on a case by case basis and ultimately do what is right and fair for the students,” said Erin Hughes, a spokeswoman.

But some principals said they thought the department should simply round up, at least for this year. They said so many schools are likely to be affected that the adjustments will amount to, in effect, a systemwide budget cut, without a tidy number to make headlines. (Like all city agencies, the Department of Education was ordered in September to reduce its spending for the year.)

They also said reaching the 60 percent threshold in the future would also be a challenge, because adding additional integrated classes is both expensive and impractical. Many students who need help from a special education teacher in their academic classes can succeed in other subjects without them, principals said. And they said it doesn’t make sense to assign a special education teacher to physical education classes unless there are students whose disability is physical, a relative rarity.

Several principals also noted that the schools that face the largest cuts are the ones that strive to enroll students with disabilities and also include them in integrated classes — exactly what the Department of Education wants schools to do.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”