rolling back

After backlash, city tweaks new special education funding rules

The Department of Education is rolling back some special education policies that drew sharp criticism last week from many principals.

The principals were alarmed by a deadline, originally set for today, to “clean up” data about students with disabilities. The deadline raised concerns that the department would take back funds from schools whose students fell into lower-than-anticipated funding tiers.

“The last-minute data capture has left us scrambling to account for potentially massive cuts to our budgets halfway through the school year,” 20 principals wrote Thursday in a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

In an email sent late Friday, the department’s chief financial officer, Michael Tragale, told principals that the department would push back the deadline and relax a particularly anxiety-inducing rule so schools could retain their special education funds.

“If your school operates on a seven period day (eight periods minus lunch), students that receive special education services in their four core classes (English, Math, Science and History) will be identified for funding purposes as students who receive full-time special education services,” he wrote, noting that the policy could change again next year.

Under the arrangement, students technically spend 57 percent of their time in special education classes, narrowly missing a 60 percent cutoff to draw extra funding. Some principals said they had so many students falling just below the threshold that they faced having to return more than $100,000 to the department.

Tragale also assured principals that reclassifying some students who receive special education services as “general education” in the department’s attendance and budgeting data system, as the department is asking them to do, would not lower the schools’ annual grades, which some principals had feared. The department will still count the students as having disabilities when awarding extra credit to schools whose highest-need students make academic progress.

And Tragale said all schools would have an extra week to check data about students with special needs. The extra time will increase the likelihood that schools’ data — and funding — are accurate. But it also means additional time away from students for special education teachers charged with resolving more than 50,000 discrepancies between two data systems.

A high school principal said he was relieved to learn that he would not lose funding because of the way his school schedules students with disabilities. But he said the department would be better off rolling new policies out slowly than scaling them back after drawing protest.

“I compare it to the academic policy changes that were done last year,” said the principal, referring to new policies announced in February 2012. “I don’t agree with all of those, but they certainly gave time and plenty of notice so that schools couldn’t say they’re changing the game on us in the middle. I don’t know why this isn’t the same way.”

Mark Anderson, a teacher who heads the special education department at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx, said he thought that, even addressed, the situation reflected broader problems in the way the city is implementing special education policy changes.

“It just doesn’t seem like there’s someone in charge directing things, from central,” Anderson said. “Sometimes it seems like there’s as much confusion at the upper level as there is at the lower level. And that’s ultimately reflected on the ground level. Because there’s a lack of clarity on how things should be done.”

Tragale’s complete message to principals about the special education data concerns is below:

From: “Tragale Michael”
Date: January 11, 2013, 7:51:38 PM EST
To: “&All Principals”
Subject: Update on Midyear Adjustment Reconciliation

Dear Colleagues:

I understand that our shared effort to provide increased access to students with disabilities has raised a lot of questions regarding the mid-year budget adjustment process. I’m writing to provide additional guidance and clarification for your immediate use.

As you know, the Fair Student Funding formula for students with disabilities was adjusted this year as part of our work to educate students in their least restrictive environment and to provide funds needed for part-time (single and multiple) services. In response to principal concerns regarding the funding formula:

  • We will adjust the formula for schools with a seven period day (eight periods minus lunch), detailed in the Adjustment section below.
  • We will extend the deadline by which you must reconcile student data in ATS to January 23, detailed in the Next Steps section below.
  • We will honor appeals for data discrepancies, detailed in the Next Steps section below.

Please review the information below for immediate next steps and for a summary of these issues.

Sincerely,

Michael Tragale
Chief Financial Officer, New York City Department of Education

Adjustment to Fair Student Funding Formula

If your school operates on a seven period day (eight periods minus lunch), students that receive special education services in their four core classes (English, Math, Science and History) will be identified for funding purposes as students who receive full-time special education services. This adjustment is only applicable for these core classes and will be reviewed for FY 2014.

Clarification on School Scheduling and Student Services

Principals have reported confusion regarding how the total number of periods a week that a student is recommended to receive services and how the total number of periods in a school’s week are reflected. The DOE is using the following determinations to calculate the total number of periods in your school’s week:

  • Middle and high school period calculations will be determined from data in STARS.
  • Elementary school period calculations will be determined using the assumption of a 30 period week.
  • Instruction includes all periods (including electives and physical education) except for lunch, extended day, and discretionary before- and after-school programs.

The DOE is using SESIS data to capture the total periods per week that a student is receiving special education services.

Immediate Next Steps and Data Appeals

Your network will receive an updated report that details the discrepancies in your school between SESIS and ATS by student. This report replaces data that was previously based on minutes of service; it now reflects periods of service.

1. You should work with your network to review your school’s data for possible discrepancies and ensure that ATS reflects each student’s services appropriately by January 23. Possible discrepancies in the data include:

  • If the number of instructional periods indicated for your school is different than displayed on the discrepancy report, you should indicate the actual number. For example, the report notes you have seven daily periods but your school has eight. Periods should not include lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs.
  • SESIS indicates that a program recommendation of ICT to be provided in the subject area, where “Other” was selected for five periods. “Other” may have been intended to represent multiple subjects (such as English and Math). The correct number of periods should be indicated in the school’s data appeal.
  • When updating grade codes or the USPE screen, ensure that the effective date is retroactive to when the service began.

2. You should work with your network if you decide that you need to appeal data discrepancies that have been reported. Possible reasons for a data appeal include:

  • If we have captured an incorrect amount of total periods per week for your school.
  • If the total number of service periods for an individual student is incorrect.
  • If the start/end dates in SESIS were entered incorrectly and not reflected in the budget report.

3. You should work with your network to determine the impact any updates will have on your mid-year adjustment.

Examples of Correct ATS Coding for Students with Disabilities:

1. Student A has an IEP that calls for one period a day of SETSS for math. The school has a total of seven instructional periods a day, not including lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs. This student is receiving services for 1/7th of the school day, which is 14.3% of the day. This student should be entered into a general education grade code with the single-service flag selected on the USPE screen. This will drive funding in the <=20% FSF category to the school.

2. Student B has an IEP that states two periods a day of ICT for English and Math, and one period a day in a self-contained classroom for Science. The school has a total of seven instructional periods a day, not including lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs. This student is receiving services for 3/7th of the school day, which is 42.9% of the day. This student should be entered into a general education grade code with the multi-service flag selected on the USPE screen. This will drive funding in the 21%-59% FSF category to the school.

3. Student C has five periods a day in a self-contained classroom for the subjects of English, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Art. The school has a total of eight instructional periods a day, not including lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs. This student is receiving services for 5/8th of the school day, which is 62.5% of the day. This student should be entered into a self-contained grade code in ATS. This will drive funding in the >=60%, self-contained category to the school.

4. Student D has five periods a day in an ICT classroom for the subjects of English, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Art. The school has a total of eight instructional periods a day, not including lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs. This student is receiving services for 5/8th of the school day, which is 62.5% of the day. This student should be entered into an ICT grade code in ATS. This will drive funding in the >=60%, ICT category to the school.

Context on the Fair Student Funding Formula

The Fair Student Funding rate is based on the percent of instructional time (defined by number of periods a day) that a student requires special education services during the regular school day. More information about determining this percentage is available in this chart.

In September, schools began using the USPE screen in ATS to capture information about students who require part-time special education services. Students in either self-contained or integrated co-teaching classes for 60% or more of the week continue to be coded in a full-time special education grade code in ATS. Students receiving part-time services are now indicated in ATS using a general education grade code with a flag to identify if they receive either related services only (RO REL SERVICE ONLY), services for 20% or less of the week (SG SINGLE SERVICE), or services for 21%-59% of the week (ML MULTI-SERVICE). Please note that moving a student from a special education grade code (starting or ending with 9) into a general education grade code does not impact a school’s progress report, nor does it affect the IEP designation in a student’s official ATS profile.

Context on Data Issues Reported

A comparison of IEP data in SESIS and data entered by schools in ATS currently displays discrepancies between the services a student is mandated to receive in SESIS (as per their IEP) compared to the student’s programming in ATS (as per either the special education grade code or USPE data). These discrepancies highlight instances of students with disabilities with part-time program recommendations in SESIS, who are coded as receiving full-time services in ATS, and vice versa.

These discrepancies have serious implications for how students are receiving mandated services. As the DOE is committed to ensure students’ mandated services are being provided in the least restrictive setting appropriate, we need schools’ assistance in reconciling this information to ensure student programs match student IEPs.

Additionally, the information on the USPE screen will also replace the Special Education Integration Survey (SEIS). Using this screen was intended to be a faster and more convenient process for schools in comparison to the print-out process used previously for the SEIS schedule. It is therefore critical that services reflected be an accurate representation of services received.

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.”