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Auditor: Cut Special Education

Report Raises More Questions Than Answers

After the School Board spent $250,000 for five reports from an independent auditor, some within the Fairfax County Public Schools system are wondering why.

Last week the auditor proposed saving hundreds of millions of dollars by reducing special education programs, closing 15 of 21 special education centers, reducing special education staffing and testing fewer students to see if they qualify for special programs.

Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech said the independent auditor’s report was not necessary and responding to recommendations from the reports would drain resources school resources.

"I didn't feel there was a need for this, but I know the school system and know it well," said Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech, in an interview Wednesday. "To do something like this and to do it right is a huge expenditure."

Greg Gibson, of Gibson Consulting Group based in Austin, Texas, said some of the recommendations in the report are based on national statistics and common practices, and are not specific to Fairfax County programs.

It is the generalities that have school-system officials concerned, even prompting one board member to insist that caveats stating that fact be included in the final report.

"To that extent, the report is not helpful at all because it will require spending resources responding to issues that really aren't issues," Domenech said.

The interim report was presented to the Fairfax County School Board Monday, July 7.

THE FIRST STEP recommended by the report would involve reducing the number of students who are tested to see if they need special education. The county could save $1 million in fiscal year 2004 by reducing the referral rate by 10 percent and $40 million by FY '15. In addition, by reducing “nonqualified” referrals, students who are referred for special education evaluation but do not qualify for the program, could result in another $70,000 savings in FY '04 and $850,000 by FY '15.

By closing 15 of the 21 special education centers (at a rate of two centers every other year) and moving those students into general education programs, the school system could save $1.5 million in FY '05 and up to $1.1 million every other year until fully implemented.

The staffing formula suggested, which uses the state's weighted formula that assigns values to the level of services, and eliminates instructional assistants, would save $7 million in FY '05 and $28 million annually by FY '08 when fully phased in.

"I would not support [closing the centers]. I would support smaller co-located centers. …” said School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville), budget committee chair. “To simply disband the whole center system is a disservice to the community."

Only the special education piece was presented as an interim report, with the final version expected in September, when Gibson releases the final two reports — program evaluation review and program overlap.

"We did not do a comprehensive review of the special education department. That is not what we were asked to do," Gibson said. "Instead, we looked at three areas we thought were promising."

FAIRFAX COUNTY has already reduced the number of special education centers throughout the county in favor of smaller centers co-located in existing community schools. Currently, the school system has 21 centers, 15 of which are designated for students who have been diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, which could include bipolar disease schizophrenia and suicidal tendencies, among other mental disabilities.

The consultant's report points out 88 percent of the county's special education graduates received standard or advanced diplomas in 2002; and that 93 to 96 percent of the special education graduates are fully employed or are receiving a post-secondary education.

"The national average," said Strauss regarding the last statistic, "is less than 50 percent. We're almost double that."

Strauss said it would have been helpful if the Gibson report included benchmarks such as a comparison between the costs associated with the students that are served within the school system and those that are "out sourced" to other agencies or jurisdictions. She also would have liked to see data on how many referrals are made by parents compared to school system staff and how many students in the special education program are speakers of other languages. She pointed out the county's identification rate is less than the state average.

“Parents are setting high standards for their children,” Strauss said. The lack of comparative data in the report results in an incomplete picture of the successes of the system, she said. “It skews the reality of the report."

Other board members questioned the enrollment projections that the auditor uses, which were based on the firm's formula rather than actual school system trends. They also questioned some general statements made in the report, e.g. that increasing the success rate of reading programs would reduce the need for special education services.

"When I look at this data, I can't help but think some of these suggestions were made because we have deficits," said School Board member Kathy Smith (Sully). But "the suggestions are general and not based on what we're doing now."

DOMENECH SAID that regardless of what the report recommends, when it comes down to it, Fairfax County schools have to make sure they are not denying any students educational services. The suggestion of closing centers and reducing referrals could do just that.

"It's one thing to talk about these kids on paper and another to see their needs," Domenech said. "Is the suggested savings realistic? No, certainly not a half-billion dollars. It is an interim report. The School Board has a valid point in questioning his enrollment figures. What were his savings based on? Generally speaking, special education services is less expensive if it is centralized.

"I appreciate someone coming in and looking, but in a couple of weeks there is not the in-depth knowledge of the programs and issues."

Domenech said as far as cutting back on the number of referrals, it is one thing to tell staff to reduce the numbers, but parents have the right by law to refer their child for special education evaluation. He also said that while the report provides plenty of statistics, in all there are more than 56 tables and charts, the figures aren't compared to anything.

SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill) asked the consultant if the report included the presumption of increased litigation if the school system sets a target to reduce the number of referrals. The consultant said the firm would not recommend something that would cause an increase in litigation.

The superintendent did say he liked the consultant's staffing suggestion, which was something the school system was already looking into on its own, however, "ultimately everything he is suggesting is counter to our culture and what people expect."

Domenech said the school system does not need programs such as International Baccalaureate, advanced placement, gifted and talented centers, foreign language immersion, Project Excel, "but they are programs that make us stand out from every other school system."

Strauss said hiring the consultant was something the School Board had to do, if for nothing else but to prove the school system has nothing to hide. During the last budget cycle, the school system was criticized for spending too much on special education and in general. The School Board hired the independent consultant to see if there were cost-saving possibilities that could be implemented.

"I'm not inclined to downgrade the quality of education for our children. I would rather find other ways to save money," Strauss said.