Years of change and tumult at the highest levels of administration in the South Orange-Maplewood School District have taken their toll — particularly in one area: special education and out-of-district placements.
However, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra said that the district is taking concrete steps to improve special education administration and programming and to move more students back in district — including hiring staff, adding training, strengthening social emotional programs and implementing data.
“It’s not merely an expense issue,” Ficarra told the Board of Education on March 19, “it’s the right thing to do.”
According to research shared by former BOE member Jeffrey Bennett, SOMSD’s out-of-district [OOD] placement rate and tuition spending are nearly the highest in New Jersey. The only district that spends more money on OOD tuition than the SOMSD in Essex County is Irvington.
OOD is a sensitive issue as the district wants to provide proper schooling and supports to students in need but must also watch its bottom line.
“The average district in NJ only has 1% of students in OOD placement, but the SOMSD’s OOD placement rate is 2.5%,” wrote Bennett in an email. “While our OOD placement rate has always been high, it is increasing, and was closer to 2% only a few years ago. In terms of spending, in 2011-12 the SOMSD spent about 8.5% of its budget on OOD tuition. Now it is at least 10.5%. Most of the districts around us only spend 5-6% of their budgets on OOD tuition.”
While researching, Bennett also found that more than half of the SOMSD transportation spending is for OOD transportation (about $3.1 million out of $5.7 million).
OOD placements included boarding schools as far away as a school in Utah (a school that costs $78,750 per student plus transportation), Washington State, New Hampshire, Idaho, North Carolina, Connecticut and upstate New York.
Bennett communicated his concerns directly to the district and to Village Green which contacted the district for response. Ficarra responded to the inquiry via the budget presentation at the last two Board of Education meetings.
At the March 19 BOE meeting, Ficarra noted that these placements were made not only by the school district but had been “upheld by court decisions.”
In response to the assertion that students were being sent out of district to non-approved placements, Ficarra clarified by saying, “If you apply to the state and you get approval, you get on a list. We however do not send students to any schools that are not approved by the DOE [NJ Department of Eduction]. They may not be pre-approved but before we send a child and pay tuition they are approved by the state of New Jersey.”
Nonetheless, Ficarra acknowledged the high rate of out-of-district placements and said the district is working to bring more students in district both to lower costs and for the good of the students. Ficarra stated that the district had added 20 staff last year “to keep students in house. That’s paying back by having fewer and fewer students going out.”
From Ficarra’s presentation:
Ficarra also noted that an audit of the special education program would be “getting us back to the basics with professional development, services,” etc.
Both Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker and BOE member Johanna Wright asked about legal fees. Following up on questions asked by Wright, Baker asked, “Are there things lacking in the district leading to this litigation/fees?”
In short, the answer seems to be “yes” — but that those issues have been and are being addressed as outlined by BOE member and Chair of the Excellence & Equity Committee Annemarie Maini in an email she shared with Village Green that she had sent to Bennett in response to his queries.
Maini noted that when the new special education director Dr. Lauren Reisenauer joined the district last summer there were numerous open lawsuits against the district. Maini wrote that since the district “had very poor practice of documenting IEPs,” it was not well positioned to fight lawsuits, “so yes we gained a reputation that encouraged parents to make unilateral placements and then bring a lawsuit to us.”
“The good news,” wrote Maini, “is that the new special ed director is working on compliance as the primary goal of this year. We do have a tool to help with IEP timelines as an example (called EZIEP). They offer free evaluations of our process and free professional development. We have not leveraged that in the past and they are planning to do that ASAP.” Maini said that the administration is also “looking to add components to contain that data all in one system. As you can guess this also allows for an easy monitoring of a child’s entire process through the system and can monitor/show compliance in one place.”
Another portion of Maini’s letter addressed how the district is working to bring more OOD placements back in district: “Administration has explored the reason for these placements and many are related to social emotional supports necessary at the middle school level. They are exploring expanding those programs at the two middle schools (both the current I-Step as well as exploring the high school program of ESS). Again, supporting students during the day to provide them with the opportunity to participate in their academic classes in the least restrictive environment with the supports available during the school day.”
“These programs do work,” wrote Main, “and last year we actively recruited families to return to the high school from out of district placements with some of this type of programming, and the child study teams have identified additional students for this year. If we can deliver these services in the middle school before families feel the need to leave us, it is a win for the students and a win for the district.”
Maini also voiced her confidence in Ficarra and his administrative team.
“It is my opinion that the current administration is beginning to really manage the entire process for effectiveness, as well as meeting the needs of children – across the entire district (actively engaging building leaders instead of just working within special education),” wrote Maini, “They have also focused on ensuring that all staff understand all the programming that we offer so that when they engage with families they can encourage district programming instead of suggesting exploring out of district options. We aren’t perfect and we won’t be able to meet the needs of all students, but I am confident that we will be able to meet the needs of more, and more students and families.”
At the February meeting, BOE member Tony Mazzocchi thanked Ficarra for adding FAQs to his budget slides, in particular those related to OOD.
“I think we can agree that this trend of cost is borderline not sustainable,” said Mazzocchi. He commended Ficarra for looking at bringing more students in district through the programs outlined.