CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Board of Education unanimously approved two new staff positions for this coming school year as a step toward bringing the school system’s special education programs back into federal compliance.
The new positions — a roving “coach” to advise classroom teachers in handling student behavioral problems and a liaison and coordinator of training for parents of special education students — are part of a formal remediation plan to rectify the non-compliance sanction over time.
“This is a very complicated requirement,” said Susan Beck, director of special education for the West Virginia Department of Education, who helped explain the non-compliance situation to county school board members last week. “It is so significant that it is attached to federal money. That is why it’s pretty important to understand this situation and the approval of this, because it could potentially affect all your federal money.”
Laden with bureaucratic jargon and abbreviated references, the 12-page remediation plan requires the county school district to spend at least 15 percent of its annual federal funding to address the concerns over the county’s special education services and programs.
The remediation plan tells the county school district to spend $319,000 to address the compliance concerns. That translates into about $1.2 million in overall funding that could be jeopardized, at least in theory, if the school district’s non-compliance issues persist over time.
Beck said the county school system will have to follow the remediation plan and its federal spending stipulation for at least two years. Whether the school system will fall into compliance after two years, and be released from its federal spending constraints, will depend on what the future student special education data shows, she said.
“We are happy with what has been produced and the work that Jefferson County has put together to put this plan out there,” Beck told the school board members. “We feel that they’re getting at the root cause in looking at that and trying to make some systemic changes going forward.”
An audit of the school district’s special education programs found “significant disproportionality” in students who received out-of-district special education programs and services.
In an assessment of the “race and ethnicity” of the school system’s students, the audit determined that a disproportionate number of white students — particularly those with autism and behavioral issues — are being housed at or bused to specialized private education centers outside the county.
“We are disproportionately sending white people to an out-of-state placement” for special education services, explained Cindy Jones, the county’s director of pupil services.
School board President Kathy Skinner asked whether hiring the behavioral coach and the parent liaison, as the plan requires, would prevent too many special education students, at least by statistical measures, from receiving their educations outside the school system.
Beck answered, “not necessarily.”
“The idea behind this plan is to put these services in place to fill the capacity within your district to provide those services,” she explained. “There might be a time that you look at the students that are [educated] out of state and say that you do have the services available to bring them back.
“It doesn’t say that you have to bring them back,” she continued. “It says that if you have the right supports in place that you may look at those students who are placed in those schools out of state and determine whether you feel as if they can come back to school.”
Shawn Dilly, the county’s deputy superintendent for instruction, said the parent liaison position will work to support the school system’s special education services, not just those provided to autism students or those with behavior problems. “It will definitely help all of our special ed programs improve,” he said.
The multi-year remediation plan also calls for hiring a central education office bookkeeper to handle special education billing issues. It also proposes to allow three central education office administrators to work 51 additional days into the summer with a focus on special education issues.
An existing central office secretary position would also change from a part-time to a full-time position to handle extra paperwork for special education reimbursements.
For future school years, several other staff positions would be created under the remediation plan.
“This is not a plan that does not have flexibility over time,” said Renee Ecckles-Hardy, a data management administrator with the state department of education. “It will be reviewed as their plan is implemented. So anything that they discover along the way, the plan can be looked at again to say, ‘OK, we need to tweak this, we need to add this, we need to take this out.’”
However, Jones and Amy Loring, the school system’s chief human resources officer, said the remediation plan calls for only hiring the behavioral coach and the parent liaison position for the upcoming school year.
County school board members were first presented with the remediation plan on July 23, after county school administrators developed the plan for a little over a year with state education officials.
School board members postponed a vote on whether to approve the new special education positions after they posed several questions that arose about the plan and its details.
School administrators haven’t said, and available documents don’t reveal, exactly when they knew the school system faced the compliance issues. An undated letter Beck wrote mentioned training given to school officials last November as part of the remediation plan.
Beck, Jones and Jefferson County Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson formally approved the remediation plan on June 26. The plan, including its new staff hiring goal, was supposed to be implemented by July 1, Beck said last week.
“We assumed that the plan was approved by the county and by us, as the state [education] department,” she told school board members. “We’re not able to release your federal funds … if there’s a holdup in this plan.”
School board member Donna Joy, who has 15 years of experience as a classroom special education teacher, made the board’s motion to approve the two staff positions. But she did so after expressing frustration over the school board members being placed in a position to have to approve the positions.
Pointing out that school officials had been working on the compliance fix for about a year or possibly more, Joy said school board members should have learned about the compliance issues much sooner and been part of shaping the remediation plan. “There’s no more time,” she pointed out. “By the school system waiting until the last day, the end, it kind of leaves no room to try to make any improvements on that plan.”
Based on her experience and discussions with teachers, Joy said she would have used the opportunity to review the remediation plan to hire more classroom special education teachers.
“My concern is that kids need, they need interaction with the teacher,” she said. “That is most likely going to help — and probably some extra reading teachers at the elementary level, that’ll prevent a lot of behavioral problems. … There’s no mention of that in this plan. There’s no room for teachers.”
School officials have discussed the shortage of special education teachers available to hire, and how the personnel shortage is a nationwide challenge. Jones and Loring last month reiterated the challenge, adding that creating the new positions doesn’t mean the county will be able to quickly fill those positions.
As a math teacher who has a doctorate degree in educational research and statistics, Joy also questioned the accuracy of the school district’s data on special education students. The school system reported that 1,247 of its 8,942 students received some assistance from a special education program last year.
Joy has pointed out that the county school system, while its enrollment declined, has reported that 14 percent of its students received special education services for each of the past four school years. The percentage of white, black and Hispanic students who received special education services also each stood at 14 percent during those same years.
Approving a remediation plan relying on inaccurate data, Joy maintained, might cause the county to try to fix problems that don’t exist and to overlook problems that do exist.
But Beck and Ecckles-Hardy said the statistics used to evaluate the county’s compliance with the federal regulations were reviewed and checked. Those statistics should not be a concern for school board members approving the requested positions, they said.
“Time is of the essence,” Ecckles-Hardy said. “There’s nothing wrong with the data. But, irregardless, this plan is approved and ready to go so that [school officials] can start helping students.”