Taking Gibson Consulting Group's advice would destroy the special education program in Fairfax County, said Alice Farling, the assistant superintendent of the Department of Special Services, as she presented the staff response Wednesday, Oct. 15, at a work session of the Fairfax County School Board. Farling said Gibson's report on special education uses incorrect information, fails to provide benchmarks and over-estimates potential savings. Other suggestions made in the report, for example, changing the staffing formula, the school system had already begun before Gibson was hired.
"When I read [the Gibson] report, it frightens me," said Tana Leasure, co-chair of the school system's Advisory Committee for Students With Disabilities and a special-education parent. "When we talk about the Virginia state requirements [for special education], they are the bare minimum. There is nothing else in this county we would be proud to say we have the bare minimum."
The staff response concerning Gibson's analysis of the school system's program evaluation and program overlap was better received. Although staff agrees with some of the suggestions, it disagrees with the consultant's methods of implementing the proposed changes.
AT THE WORK SESSION last week, Greg Gibson, president of Gibson Consulting Group, blamed the school-system staff for the cost over runs — he has submitted additional bills totaling more than $9,000 — and the superintendent for his absence at the September work session, for which Gibson was criticized by members of the School Board.
"Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech and I agreed three weeks prior to the meeting that I did not need to be here because we felt there weren't enough changes [between the draft special education report and the final report]," Gibson said. "I did submit a request for additional fees for two things. First, for the time we incurred on data issues. … And a second request for additional tasks we didn't expect we'd have to do."
Gibson said schools staff did not provide some data in a timely manner, and in some cases, in formats that were not usable, forcing the consultants to enter the data themselves. In addition, the consultant, which is based in Austin, Texas, was not contracted to evaluate the Quality Program Assurance System, or QPAS, Gibson said, but had the work added during a visit to the school system.
As to whether or not Gibson will be paid the additional money has yet to be worked out. Gibson Consulting was hired in February, at a contracted price of $250,000, to provide five audit reports: special education, budget enhancements, performance measurement, program evaluation and program overlap. In addition, the county Board of Supervisors added $30,000 — money left over from the Communities That Care survey, which was canceled. To date, the school system has paid Gibson Consulting $265,000 for the reports.
What will happen with those reports is also up in the air.
"I guess it's up to the superintendent whether to implement the suggestions," said School Board member Tessie Wilson (Braddock), chair of the student services committee and one of the board's two designees to work with Gibson. "I've asked staff to relook at the numbers to see whose right. And I'm hoping my question about the cost differential between stand-alone centers and a school-within-a school will be a big difference."
OVERALL, Farling said the Gibson staff she worked with were knowledgeable, however, she said the report shows analyzing the school system's special education program was just "too complex" for them.
Staff did agree changes in the staffing formula are needed and had begun the process two years ago. Farling said she expected to come before the board no later than December with suggested changes.
However, staff felt the cost savings suggested by Gibson if the school system reduced referrals and closed centers were over-stated.
"The consultant proposed saving $45.1 million over 12 years by closing 16 centers," Farling said. "Staff feels this is inconceivable to do and maintain the quality of the program for our neediest students."
The school system is moving toward inclusion, she said, including last year's closing of the Franconia Center and the conversion of three other co-located centers into one-school models — meaning that in the cases of a co-located center within a school there is one principal for the entire facility instead of a principal for the school and one for the center — which will save $7.4 million over the same 12-year period. In addition, Farling said it is possible staff will suggest the closing of other centers in the future due to low enrollment.
Staff was disappointed the report did not compare Fairfax County to another school systems, said Farling. Gibson said that it was agreed beforehand between his company and the staff that such comparison would not be done. A claim staff denies.
Farling said Fairfax County's special-education-related costs are lower than the national average and that the special education prevalence rates and non-qualifying referral rates are lower than what the consultant claims.
"WE DID NOT make the data up," Gibson said of staff's claims of inaccuracies. "We take exception to most of the [claims] of factual and methodological inaccuracies."
As for the suggestion of closing centers, Gibson said, "We don't think every 50 kids needs an administrator. We're recommending models already in your school system. Once you add any service in public education it is very difficult to take it back, especially in special education."
Many of the board members expressed concern over the Gibson report's mention of reading programs and how some within the community are taking it to mean the school system should be teaching explicit phonics.
Gibson said that is not the case. "We did not do an evaluation of your reading programs. The reference we made is in general education," Gibson said. "The main point is that there is not a systemwide approach to pre-referral intervention."
Patricia Addison, director of special education for the school system, said there are a number of different methods used throughout the schools, including the methods endorsed by the National Institutes of Health, which include phonics.
"Our intent is to look at what strategies will help students," Addison said. "There aren't any programs that are prohibited. There are no barriers."