lowest common denominator

City might take special ed funding back from schools midyear

Changes meant to help schools overhaul their special education programs have instead left principals scrambling for a budget fix.

Middle and high school principals are learning this week that the Department of Education is planning to take back thousands of dollars earmarked to help their schools serve students with special needs — over a budget technicality.

“Students with disabilities are the ones who lose out in this — and schools’ ability to provide what [students] need,” said a principal whose school faces a cut.

The issue stems from a new funding formula adopted this year as part of the Department of Education’s efforts to bring students with disabilities out of self-contained classes whenever possible.

Previously, schools received funding based on the number of their students assigned to different kinds of special education classes. Students in self-contained special education classes brought one amount, while students who were pulled out of general education classes for extra help brought another. But as the department has moved to a more flexible model, where students can switch among types of settings based on their needs, the funding model had to change.

The new model allots funds based on the percentage of time students spend in each kind of special education class. Students who spend more than 60 percent of their time in Integrated Co-Teaching classes — which mix special education and general education students and have two teachers, one with special education certification — each bring their school $7,100. Students who spend less time in the classes, which are expensive to run, bring their schools fewer dollars.

Schools programmed students this year with the funding formula in mind. So many middle and high school principals were surprised this week to learn that their calculations were off and they would have to relinquish the very funds they had used to create the integrated classes this year.

Principals said they calculated that students with four Integrated Co-Teaching classes and two other classes, a common arrangement, would land solidly over the 60 percent threshold. More than half a dozen principals in four boroughs each told GothamSchools that they made the same calculation.

But they left physical education classes out of the equation. The Department of Education includes P.E. in its calculation, meaning that students with the same schedule land just short of the cutoff. Out of a schedule of seven classes, four integrated classes constitute only 57 percent of a student’s time.

Principals said they are just finding out this week about the department’s math — and the $2,000 per miscalculated student that schools might have to give back.

Some schools could lose well over $100,000 from their budgets in the middle of the year.

“No one advised us this is how this is going to play out,” said a high school principal, who added that school administrators learned about the issue on Monday during a phone call with officials from the school’s network. Other principals also reported being surprised by the potential budget crunch this week, when the Department of Education held a budget meeting for network officials.

Department officials said the budget materials that principals received this year stated clearly that only lunch should be excluded from the time calculations. They said the issue is arising now because, as part of a “data clean-up,” the department is asking schools to certify that information about students’ schedules is correct in two different places by Jan. 14.

The information in the two systems — the department’s attendance system and its new Special Education Student Information System — doesn’t always match up, principals said. They said they worry that the discrepancies could cause their schools to lose funding even for students who do hit the 60 percent requirement.

“Your school will not receive funding for student services that are not properly coded,” this week’s Department of Education bulletin cautioned principals.

Because any adjustments would come in the middle of the year, principals could not cut teachers, even though that’s what the special education funds were used to pay for. Instead, they would have to slash everything else.

“It could be a real disaster,” said one person who works in a city school.

Department of Education officials said principals could appeal the take-backs.

“We understand that some principals may have concerns about their school’s budget and we will make sure to address those on a case by case basis and ultimately do what is right and fair for the students,” said Erin Hughes, a spokeswoman.

But some principals said they thought the department should simply round up, at least for this year. They said so many schools are likely to be affected that the adjustments will amount to, in effect, a systemwide budget cut, without a tidy number to make headlines. (Like all city agencies, the Department of Education was ordered in September to reduce its spending for the year.)

They also said reaching the 60 percent threshold in the future would also be a challenge, because adding additional integrated classes is both expensive and impractical. Many students who need help from a special education teacher in their academic classes can succeed in other subjects without them, principals said. And they said it doesn’t make sense to assign a special education teacher to physical education classes unless there are students whose disability is physical, a relative rarity.

Several principals also noted that the schools that face the largest cuts are the ones that strive to enroll students with disabilities and also include them in integrated classes — exactly what the Department of Education wants schools to do.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”

D.C.

What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

DeVos said she supports the plan.

“This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this proposal a reality,” DeVos said in a statement.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said