Special Education Budget Amendment: Helping Hands

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Owen Gray — Give a Helping Hand (click to listen/watch).

On Monday, October 30, 2017 (6:00 PM, Doyle Bldg. Auditorium), the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education will finalize our 2017-18 budget.  Late information received from the state shows that based on the expenditures from the Preliminary budget passed in June, our district will have about $3.7 Million in unused revenue authority, and significantly lower property tax increases than anticipated (2.96% vs 3.97%).  At the October 23, 2017 Operations Work Group meeting, this information was discussed, and there is interest among some of the Board in using some of this authority to increase Special Education expenditures, specifically to add Special Education Assistants, or SEAs  (video here).  I intend to support (or propose) a budget amendment to do this.

It is probably worth noting that prior to passing the June budget, the Board passed an amendment devoting up to an extra $1 million to class size reduction, but because the terms of that amendment, the delay in passing a state budget meant that this money was not spent.

At the October 23 meeting I said I was comfortable using about half of the authority, or about $1.8 Million total (there was also some support for collecting and “banking” some of the revenue for future use, and for applying to physical plant maintenance).  We are still waiting for some more information on current special education staffing and recent trends; based on the information I have now, I am thinking in the $750,000 to $1,000,000 range for special education staffing, which would mean about 15 to 20 FTE SEAs.

In posting a news story related to this on Facebook, I wrote that I “have been hearing from both staff and families that the unmet needs are greater than they have been in the past.,” since that posting I have heard much more.

I am not under the illusion that this increase will allow all needs to be met (we are far from that), but I do think it will help in multiple ways.

I also fully understand that these kind of last minute budget fixes are not a good practice, and that real help (and good budgeting) involves deliberate analysis, redesign, and implementation.  This is in the works, with a Special Education Delivery redesign process (including money for those — often correctly — dreaded consultants) in the budget.  I hope that process brings improvement, but right now we know there are needs, and have the means to address some of those needs.  I think we would be remiss if we did not do this.  What follows is some background and more detail on why I believe this, why I support using some of this revenue authority for special education staffing.

Staffing Trends

Fiscal Year Special Education Assistants (SEA) Special Education Teachers (District and School) Special Education Teachers (School Based) Special Education Students
2014 318.06 337.66 3,936 (January)
2015 333.05 331.76 3,965 (January)
2016 341.65 326.04 281.3 3,891 (January)
2017 292.53 351.50 287.4 3,935 (January)
2018 (proposed) 289.24 356.46 293.6 (?) 3,973 (September)

Data taken from October Budget UpdateApril Budget Book, and MMSD (internal) DataDashboard.  The school based teacher staffing is an estimate, no data is readily available for 2014, and 2015.

The most obvious trend is a shift from SEAs to teachers, resulting in fewer total school based staff, despite generally increasing numbers of special education students (FY 2017 to 2018 doesn’t fully fit this trend, if my estimate is correct, with a total staffing increase of 1.37, for an increase of students of 38).  This appears to be deliberate, and also appears to be based on (among other things) a misapplication of the work of Special Education Scholar Michael Ginagreco (more on that below).

The April Budget included an increase of 7.7 EAs, the June budget had a net cut of 13 EAs (this includes all categories of EAs, not just SEAs), this is a reduction of 57 from 2015-16.  As of the 2017-18 third Friday count there were 82 more special education students than there had been in January of 2016,  and 38 more than in January of 2017. 

This, from a 2011 Wisconsin State Journal article (discussed in this AMPS post) provides some longer term context:

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Graph from the Wisconsin State Journal, click image for accompanying story.

Why SEAs Matter and Why this Can Help

Probably best to start here with a disclosure: my spouse is a SEA in MMSD.  Chris Rickert and others of his ilk may think that because of this I should not involve myself in this area as a Board Member.  I disagree.  If this amendment passes, the odds are it will have little or no direct impact on my spouse’s working conditions (the program she works with is extremely unlikely to see any staffing changes), and even if it does have a small direct or indirect impact, it would not be anything that could be considered special treatment based on our relationship.  There would be no monetary impact for our family.

The staff in our schools and the families of students in special education can do a much better job explaining why this matters than I can (please do let the Board hear your stories); their direct experiences are much more powerful than my observations and interpretations.  That said, I would like to try.

Safety: All students; all staff.  Whether it is students who “run” from classes, buildings and playgrounds, or students who express their frustrations in physical ways,  experienced SEAs who know their students can be a key factor in keeping students and staff safe.

Well-being: All students; all staff.  With students, some of this comes down to having basic needs (feeding, toileting….) consistently attended to.  This is not happening with some students now.  With all — students and staff — the stress factors related to understaffing are huge.  It is no accident that we had an approximately 20% turnover of CC teachers last year.  I don’t have a figure on SEA turnover, but I know more than a handful of good, experienced SEAs who burned out and left.  Additionally, about 40% of Cross Categorical (CC, Special Education) teachers hired last year lacked full certification (they were working on emergency permits), and over 25% of those hired did not have general education certification either (emergency licenses). The presence of unqualified and inexperienced CC teachers increases the workload and stress of our experienced staff, making other supports more necessary.  SEAs can help.

Student learning. Unless safety and well-being are taken care of, learning is going to be minimal.  One of the criticisms of SEA staffing is that they end up doing teaching work that should be done by highly trained and qualified teachers; I know in some of our classrooms we have highly qualified teachers doing support work that should be done by support staff.  This is not a good use of our resources, either human or fiscal, and it is not good for our students’ progress.

Relationships:  Relationships are a point of emphasis this year in MMSD, and this could be a good thing.  Common sense and solid research shows that strong relationships between staff and students, and among staff can contribute student and staff well-being, staff retention, and most important student academic progress.  I anticipate hearing from our administration that there is already enough staffing/money in the budget, and the current system of plugging in emergency and short term staff to address crises is working.  Even if by deploying in this manner we do have enough staff, it goes against everything we know about the importance of relationships.  It isn’t a good idea to move staff in and out of schools and classroom, and this is especially true in relation to students with complex needs, that often include great unease with change.   Adding staff will allow more of the late allocations to be permanent, and subject fewer students and staff teams to instability.

The Misuse of Research

It is no secret that much of the consulting class and the professoriate  are hostile to Educational Assistants (what they tend to call paraprofessionals).  Bottom line minded budget-cutting hacks, find Special Education in general, and EAs in particular easy targets.  Others appear to be out of touch with the realities in our schools, and/or over reacting to past or isolated mis and overuse of Educational Assistants.  Michael Giangreco, who was one of the keynotes for the MMSD Summer Teaching & Learning Institute, appears to be very well-intentioned, but somewhat out of touch and in the over reaction mode.  Unfortunately, it also appears that MMSD staff have not realized the aspects of his work that make it problematic when applied to our district and have been using it to justify cuts to SEAs (accompanied by reallocations to Cross Categorical teachers).

I have been digging into his work, and there is much to like.  Generously he links to many of his articles and materials on his website (see the link with his name); I have also explored some things that are behind firewalls.

One of the big lessons from his work is that staffing for inclusion should be done with a whole school approach (General Education and Special Education), and that it should be done by design, not through piecemeal tweaks.  I know that the special education budget amendment will be a tweak, but I also believe the shifts that contributed to the need for this amendment were done piecemeal.

For what follows I am going to (mostly) rely on the article that was linked in the Summer Learning Institute materials, “Precarious or Purposeful? Proactively Building Inclusive Special Education Service Delivery on Solid Ground” by Michael F. Giangreco and Jesse C. Suter.

Here and elsewhere, Giangreco does a fine job identifying (what I would call) preconditions for successful inclusion models; delineating the interactions of various factors tied to creating positive school cultures and successful student learning; offering multiple measures useful in assessing staffing allocations, and much more; in this article he includes these measures for what he calls “the exemplar model.”  I am confident that a school that both met his preconditions and followed his model would be a wonderful school for both students and staff.  Unfortunately, MMSD is very different than the exemplars.

At the October 23 meeting (and previously in private conversation) Anna Moffit alerted me to one issue, that of class size.  Giangreco’s exemplar (K-8) has class sizes of 17-21.  MMSD has some very small classes, but many, many well over 21.  Elsewhere — in an article titled “Constructively Responding to Requests for Paraprofessionals: We Keep Asking the Wrong Questions” (behind a firewall) Giangreco and his co-authors write about Middle and High School teaching loads:

Research in middle and high schools suggests understanding total student load (TSL, i.e., the total number of students with whom a teacher interacts) is a service delivery variable of importance related to teacher–student interactions and achievement (Ouchi, 2009). TSL levels about 80 allow teachers opportunities to know their students, respond to student work, and have sufficient time out of the classroom to make themselves available to students for individual assistance. This allows students to know their teachers understand and care about them—a key foundation of the learning process and ultimately to student achievement. Exploring general and special education service delivery variables allows schools to establish a baseline and provides a wealth of information in considering how they might contribute to school system health.

All good and true.  I believe MMSD High School TSLs are generally over 120, or half again as large as Giangreco recommends.

Also of note are the demographics for his Exemplar.  Here is a comparison with MMSD (September 2017,  third Friday count):

Exemplar MMSD
Minority 10.97% 57.3%
Free/Reduced Lunch 35% 45.9%
English Language Learners 6% 28.3%
Special Education 14% 14.5%

MMSD is significantly higher in all but one measure.

Leaving aside these other factors, the kicker is that the exemplar model calls for huge increases in SEA, Cross Categorical, and General Education Assistants.  Huge.

Exemplar MMSD Current MMSD with Model MMSD Increase
Total Students 433 27231
SPED Students 60.62 3931
CC Teacher FTE 7 293.6 561.57 267.97
CC Teacher Caseload 8.7 13.39
CC Teacher Density 1:63 1:93
SEA FTE 10 289.24 648.68 359.44
SPED Student to SEA 6.06 13.6
SEA Density 1:43 1:94.15
CC to SEA 1:1.4 1:1.02
EA total 15 439.7 943.34 503.64
EA to Student Density 1:28.87 1:61.93

Date Notes: MMSD date from (internal) Datadashboard (I used current instead of third Friday here), October Budget Update, June Budget, CC = “Cross Categorical.” MMSD school based CC estimated, and this estimate was used for caseloads, ratios, and density.  Caveat, the Exemplar model should be compared at the school level, it was done here at the district level because time and data access limitations did not allow for a school by school analysis.

So to meet the exemplar model, MMSD should add 267.97 school based Cross Categorical teachers, and 359.64 SEAs (along with 144.2 other EAs).  OK, let’s do it!

The one thing MMSD should not do based on this model is to cut small numbers of SEAs to allocate even smaller numbers of Cross Categorical teachers, but that is exactly what has been done.   We are and were relatively more understaffed with SEAs and EAs than we are and were with Cross categorical teachers (according to this model).  Adding some SEAs for the short term seems like a reasonable correction.

Conclusion

The Board has an opportunity to make investments NOW that will improve the experiences, safety and well being of or students and staff.  The scholarship that has been used as one of the justifications for decreases in SEA staffing was misapplied.  Allowing things to continue to deteriorate will only make implementing systematic changes more difficult.  For these (and other) reasons, I will by supporting a special education staffing budget amendment.  When you can give a helping hand, you should.

Thomas J. (TJ) Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, Class Size, education, Equity, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, MMSD, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized

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