Earlier this month, the Board of Finance voted to reduce the Board of Education’s proposed 2018-19 operating budget by $500,000. We had asked for a modest 2.24% increase over current spending levels, and the finance board cut that request back to 1.62%.
You’ll hear plenty from us in the coming weeks about the need for school supporters to attend the May 1 Annual Town Meeting and help fend off “motions from the floor” to reduce our budget even further. (Last year there were two such motions: one would have reduced our budget by $1.5 million, and the other would have cut the budget by $1.04 million. Fortunately each was defeated.)
But right now, I want to focus on the 2015 report prepared by the District Management Council (DMC), which provided an in-depth review of our special education department. Specifically, I’d like to highlight remarks about that report offered by DMC President Nate Levenson during the last Board of Education meeting.
DMC is a nationally recognized leader in the field of special education services, and in 2015 we asked them to conduct a thorough review of Wilton’s special education processes and practices. DMC representatives spent a considerable amount of time in Wilton, meeting with administrators, teachers, mental health professionals and parents. DMC staff observed our students, examined budgets, staffing ratios, and really left no stone unturned.
The result of that review was an in-depth report that contained six specific “opportunities” for Wilton, including recommendations that we:
- Consider adopting a consistent, best-practice approach to teaching reading to struggling students without Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and with mild-moderate disabilities in Grades K-5.
- Ensure the fidelity of the Scientific Research Based Initiative (SRBI) practice already developed by the district.
- Consider strengthening and expanding supports for students who struggle to read and comprehend at the secondary level.
- Consider more tightly integrating social, emotional and behavioral programs into programs at each school.
- Consider increasing the amount of time related services staff spend with students, while also closely managing group size through thoughtful scheduling.
- Consider streamlining the paperwork and meetings for special services staff.
Each recommendation was accompanied by detailed analysis of Wilton’s current practices in that specific area, along with discussion about how we might more efficiently achieve better results.
When that report was received, many Wilton residents—not affiliated with our schools—embraced its recommendations wholeheartedly, and since then, have repeatedly expressed outrage at the slow pace with which the recommendations have been implemented. The report has been a source of contention in every budget discussion since 2015, despite BOE efforts to explain that any rapid and dramatic changes in special education practices would negatively impact students, and likely lead to litigation, since all special education services are delivered in accordance with federal law.
We invited Mr. Levenson to address our Board as a way to clarify the intent of DMC’s recommendations, and also to provide an assessment of Wilton’s progress in implementing the report recommendations. Following are some of Mr. Levenson’s key points:
- DMC is very pleased at the progress made so far in the Wilton schools. Among the 100+ districts DMC has analyzed, Wilton is considered a high-achiever in implementing change.
- Any attempts to radically change the way special education services are delivered is beyond the purview of any board of education or school administration. “Federal law took that away in 1976,” Mr. Levenson noted, referring to passage of federal legislation that mandates special education services.
- School districts that do attempt to impose rapid and dramatic changes in special education services usually end up mired in litigation, which can cost far more in the long run.
- A district should attempt to tackle one DMC recommendation at a time, with implementation taking roughly 1-3 years per recommendation.
- The key to controlling special education costs is to prevent students from needing special education services. In many instances, this can be accomplished through early intervention. By detecting potential learning issues at an early elementary level, and providing high quality services to address those issues, a district should eventually see both special education referrals and costs decline. Mr. Levenson noted Wilton’s good progress in this area, and encouraged us to continue in our efforts.
Mr. Levenson made clear that the report was never intended to be a step-by-step instruction manual for achieving dramatic savings in special education services. He noted that the “Wilton experience” had caused DMC to make changes in its reporting practices. And he offered an apology, expressing his regret that the report had caused such contention in our community.
If you have a few minutes, I would encourage you to watch the video of Mr. Levenson’s presentation, which can be found on our website. It really is compelling TV, and I believe it puts to rest the erroneous assumptions and allegations that have surrounded this report since the day it arrived in Wilton.
I hope we can put the confusion about the DMC report behind us, and allow our special education professionals to do their work without being second-guessed. A strong, efficient special education department benefits everyone. But we need to recognize that dramatic change will not—and should not—come overnight.