Trenton Public Schools announced this week that it will lay off 113 teaching positions in order to try to close a $19 million budget gap.. Some of those lay-offs will be members of Child Study Teams, the groups of social workers, psychologists, learning consultants, and educators who assess children with disabilities and work with parents to create Individualized Education Plans that lay out the type and quantity of therapies, services, accommodations, and modifications for each child.
Trenton Public Schools’ enrollment is 13,087, according to most recent D.O.E. reports. Among those children, 2,236 are classified as eligible for special education services, above the average for N.J. school districts but pretty much on par for needy districts. But 32% of those special needs children are sent to out-of-district placements. The state target is 8%.
From yesterday’s Trenton Times:
By eliminating 47 positions from the 14 child study teams, the district stands to save $4.9 million, said [district spokesperson Kathy] Smallwood Johnson. The district would keep three child study teams staffed by district personnel – one for elementary, one for middle and high school and one for students who are sent to schools out of the district.
Three Child Study Teams for a district of Trenton’s size? That’s appallingly low, especially since one of them will be devoted solely to children served in out-of-district private education schools and other public districts. Although some of the positions will be out-sourced, Trenton is crying “uncle” to the admittedly difficult task of abiding by state and federal mandates, codified in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to provide children with disabilities with a ”free appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the “least restrictive environment (LRE).”
Trenton has a long history of disregarding LRE. In December Assistant Superintendent Alexa Ingram made a presentation to the School Board that addressed the high number of special needs students sent to out-of-district placements. The district estimates that tuition costs for the 505 children sent out-of-district (that’s 5% of total district enrollment) will be $31,782,545 for this school year. During that presentation the district announced that administrators are trying to bring back more students in order to comply with LRE requirements and, of course, to lower tuition costs. The announcement of the Child Study Team lay-offs renders that plan implausible.
You can’t have it both ways. Either you invest in in-district programs that offer appropriate educational services to children with disabilities or you throw up your hands, disregard the law, and write checks to outside providers.
Nicole Whitfield, an advocate for parents of students with special needs, said she is still on the fence about the proposal, saying the in-district teams don’t always yield good results for students.
“The system is broken because over the course of many years there has never been accountability,” Whitfield said. “Maybe it will fix it. Maybe it won’t.”