School Committee Wrangles Over Special Ed Plans - Public Frustrated With Lengthy Debate
By: Alex Scofield
It took nearly two hours on Wednesday evening for the school committee to approve a trio of job descriptions for positions in the district’s special education department. The protracted discussion earned the committee a frustrated response from parents.
While parents who attended this week’s school committee meeting said they were relieved that the board finally approved the three job descriptions on the agenda, they told the board that the discussion took far too long and the votes were much too close.
Up for discussion were two new positions: an applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist who would help supervise the district’s Spinnaker Program for students on the autism spectrum, and a supervisor of special education whose job it would be to attend the numerous individual education plan (IEP) meetings required for the district’s more than 600 special needs students.The district also approved the change in title of the district’s director of special education services to that of administrator of pupil personnel services.
First up for approval was the lead ABA therapist.According to Superintendent Mary Ellen Johnson, the ABA therapist would work one-on-one with students, as well as provide supervision to the education support personnel who work in the program.“It’s been kind of like the missing link for the program,” Dr. Johnson said. “We need someone who has a knowledge base to work with teachers.”
Dr. Johnson said the district’s Spinnaker Program currently receives some supervision from the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD), however, that partnership is paid for through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act grant, which will expire after next year.She told the committee that the position would cost the district about $40,000 and that it would fit into their Fiscal Year 2011 budget.School Committee member Jessica A. Linehan said she could not support funding the position as she did not know enough about the effectiveness of the Spinnaker Program, or how many students may attend it next year.
“I need to know what the plan is for next year for the program,” she said.The superintendent said that the program has been cost effective so far, and has gotten positive reviews from parents. She told the board that by keeping students in the district with the Spinnaker Program rather than sending them to private programs, the district was able to save money even while serving a greater number of students on the autism spectrum.
“Last year we spent $330,000 to send seven students to the May Institute Program and this year have about 13 students in the Spinnaker Program, which costs us about $310,000,” she said.School Committee member Barbara A. Susko added that for the Spinnaker Program to be successful, they needed to have sustainable leadership within the district, rather than bank on the CARD program.
“We need to put in place self-sustaining leadership so people will still be there once the grant money is gone,” she said.The board approved the job description by a vote of 6-1, with Ms. Linehan dissenting.The board then discussed Dr. Johnson’s recommendation to change the title director of special education to that of administrator of pupil personnel services.
Dr. Johnson said the change in job title would make it easier for the district to advertise for the position, as a recent search by a screening committee made up of Sandwich residents was not able to draw in any suitable candidates.
The board discussed change in title at their previous meeting on April 28, but tabled the matter because several members were not comfortable with the added responsibilities that would be given to the administrator of pupil personnel services, including oversight of nursing, health services and home schooling.Newly elected school committee member Marie A. Kangas asked how much money the administrative position would cost the district.
Dr. Johnson said she had budgeted $170,000 to pay for both the administrator of pupil personnel services and the special education supervisor position.
She said the administrator’s salary would be in the area of $115,000, with part of the salary being paid for through a grant. Dr. Johnson said the highly paid administrator would hopefully provide the kind of leadership that could ultimately help the district save money.
“I would be in favor of this if we were in a better economic position,” Ms. Linehan said. “However, considering the financial state we’re in, I’d prefer to go with what is manageable rather than what is ideal.”School Committee member Shaun P. Cahill, who had buried his face in his palms during Ms. Linehan’s comments, said he was shocked that Ms. Linehan would suggest that the district did not need someone to oversee the special education department.“I can’t believe you just said that; that you would suggest we not fill that position,” he said.
“First you talk about fiscal constraint then you say you want to go look for a consultant,” he said.
Ms. Linehan responded, saying she never suggested the district not hire someone to oversee the special education department, leading to another moment of confusion, with Mr. Cahill asserting that he had just heard her say she would not support the position.
Ms. Linehan then explained that she was actually opposed to the hiring of the special education supervisor.
“All we are talking about right now is the change in job title,” Dr. Johnson said. “We haven’t gotten to the supervisor position yet.”After that confusion was sorted out, the committee voted 6-1 in favor of the approving the change in job title from director of special education to administrator of pupil personnel services, with Sharron L. Marshall casting the sole dissenting vote.
The board then came to its discussion of the job description that Ms. Linehan had already said she would not vote to support, that of the supervisor of special education.
Dr. Johnson told the committee that the supervisor would essentially serve as an assistant to the administrator of pupil personnel services.She told the committee that the current interim director of special education services Merle Montani spends a large portion of her time in IEP meetings.
The superintendent said she would prefer that the administrator have more time to oversee the district and respond to data while the supervisor did the actual work of attending IEP meetings.
She pointed out that the Sandwich Public Schools were serving more special education students as they attempted to reduce out of district placements, which increased the need for qualified supervisors.
“As we are bringing students back, that requires added supervision, support and guidance, but ultimately it’s cost effective,” she said.She claimed that the district would save about $500,000 next year through Project Excel, a program for students with social and learning challenges to be located at Camp Burgess.
“A very small portion of those savings will help pay for this position,” she said.Mr. Cahill said he was in favor of the idea because it would give the administrator of pupil personnel services more time to actually lead the special education department.“It will give the administrator more time to analyze the data,” he said.
Some members, though, questioned if the district could afford to add administrative staff in a time when so many districts were strapped for cash.“I just don’t see this as being sustainable,” Ms. Linehan said.“It sounds ideal, but I wish we were living in ideal times.”
Ms. Marshall said that other districts, like Dennis-Yarmouth and Falmouth, delegate the job of a special education supervisor to IEP boards that comprise administrative staff members from each of the district’s school buildings.
Mr. Cahill said that such a setup would not work in Sandwich because of the K-8 model the district uses.
With so many students in each building, he said, there would not be enough time for administrators to attend all the required IEP meetings.
Ms. Kangas asked if the job could instead be done by the district’s ABA therapists.
Dr. Johnson said that was not possible, as anyone who attended IEP meetings needed to have the authority to make personnel decisions, which an ABA therapist did not have.
Ms. Montani spoke in favor of the position, saying as the number of special education students in the Sandwich schools grew, so did the need for supervision.
“Providing quality services takes time, especially when you pair that with the growing volume,” Ms. Montani said.Ms. Marshall said the unclear financial picture still made her feel uneasy about approving the position, which would pay in the area of $60,000.“We are dealing with potential cuts to Chapter 70 funds,” she said. “We did have to cut our assistant superintendent this year because of reductions in aid.”
Dr. Johnson said that given all the research that her administrative team had put into the position of special education supervisor, she hoped the committee would trust that there was a need for it.
“I would ask that you respect the judgment of administrators who know the case load,” she said.
The vote passed by a narrow margin of 4-3, with Ms. Kangas, Andrea M. Killian and Ms. Linehan dissenting.
After the vote, the board received a series of reprimands from members of the public, who questioned the motivations of the board members who opposed the positions that were up for approval.
Ellen J. Guerin, a member of the Sandwich Special Education Parent Advisory Council (S-PAC), sarcastically thanked the board for all of their “wonderful questions” to the superintendent.
“I cannot understand why it took so long to come to this decision and waste all of our time,” she added. “I’m glad you finally came to this, but it was too close.”
Thomas Phillips, a parent of a child in the Spinnaker Program, said he could spend the entire time he was allotted in public forum agreeing with everything Ms. Guerin had just said.“Most of these administrators have more than 20 years of experience,” he said. “I put that into context when I listen to them speak.”
Linda M. Saffle, an S-PAC officer, said parents were strongly in favor of adding the special education supervisor.
“If it didn’t pass it would have been a slap in the face to the people who came out to our January meeting to express their support of this,” she said. “This position is needed.”
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