Schools
 

Superintendents back funding formula, say they’ll ensure special-education spending

The superintendents of New Orleans’ two public school districts met Tuesday to show support for a proposed funding formula for students in schools overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board.

The formula, which would match the tiered system used by the state-run Recovery School District, would give schools a great deal more money for special-education students, and less than is now allocated for gifted students.

In an interview with The Lens after a news conference, RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard and OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said they’d ensure that the money provided for special-education services actually would be used for that purpose. That encompasses a broad array of spending, such as special equipment, specialized staff, and transportation

“Schools are audited on how they use their funds,” Dobard said. “So we’ll continue to use processes that are already in place to guarantee that they’re using the funds appropriately.”

Lewis said he would open the district’s books and be happy to show how they spend special education dollars. His office sent a breakdown of allocation per school later in the day.

A majority of the city’s charter leaders support the new formula, drafted by a 12-member committee, but a handful of selective-admissions schools that have relatively few special-education students and would therefore lose money are considering legal action if the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approves it on Friday.

The Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board now divvy up funds differently. Recovery charters get more depending on the services required by a student, ranging from about $1,500 to more than $22,000;  School Board schools get a flat rate of about $3,200 for special-education students and also gives nearly $1,300 to students deemed gifted. The new formula would provide $375 for gifted students. Extra money is also provided for overage students and students deemed “at-risk” as well.

If approved, all New Orleans charters would receive money based on the same scale.

The city’s selective-admission charters have come out against the proposed formula. They stand to lose money, and the committee addressed that by saying no school would lose more than 2 percent of its budget. The schools that object to the formula, though, contend that the source of stopgap funding the districts have promised isn’t clearly outlined.

Regardless, both superintendents are pressing ahead.

“We look forward to bringing this to BESE on Thursday,” Dobard said. “We want them to know that we strongly stand behind our proposal.”

They were joined by several school leaders, who called the news conference, and a parent of a student with special needs.

Kira Friedrich, whose two sons attend Morris Jeff Community School, spoke in support of the formula and about 9-year-old Aidan. The third-grader is visually impaired and uses a wheelchair to get around.

“His needs throughout the school day are obviously much more than a typical student,” Friedrich said.

New Orleans College Prep’s special education director Kelli Jordan said about 15 percent of network students need special-education services. Costs can vary greatly, with one student’s costs upwards of $75,000 a year she said.

“The funding should follow the students,” Jordan said.

Lewis said he and Dobard have spoken about ensuring a compliance system would be set in place. The districts have a different set of rules for charters, which they authorize and generally oversee with annual evaluations in academic, operational and financial performance. Each charter board handles its own budget and oversees day-to-day operations of its school or schools. They provide the districts with broad spending outlines, but not necessarily a close breakdown of spending that would identify how much was spent on special education.

Special-education funding was at the center of a recent cheating and misspending report at one New Orleans charter.

ReNEW SciTech Academy hired teachers and gave them a special-education designation on paper, but it wasn’t until nearly a year and a half later that the state Department of Education publicly announced that SciTech had lied about the designations and work the special education teachers were doing.

That investigation began after The Lens reported on alleged testing impropriety and the network’s self-reported irregularities on exams in June of 2015.

ReNEW SciTech staff deliberately over-projected the number of students requiring special educations in order to close a $300,000 budget gap in the 2014-15 school year. And in some cases even after finding more students qualified for services, failed to provide them. A 70-page report issued by the department on Jan. 29 outlined several problems with special-education at the school last year.

“Additionally, STA leadership claimed to staff their school with special education teachers,” the report states. “However, documents obtained suggest that these teachers may not have been focused on educating the special education students at the school.”

In the fall of 2014 SciTech leadership gave the ReNEW central office 25 names of people specifically filling special education teacher or paraprofessional roles. The state’s database only had five of those names, all of whom were coded as regular education teachers, according to the report.

“Many of these teachers were unaware that they were filling the role of special educators…” the report states.

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