The room at Mt. Hebron Middle School was filled last night as Dr. Frank Alvarez, Superintendent of Montclair schools, addressed the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) at their monthly meeting to discuss several of the council’s concerns and introduce the new Director of Pupil Services, Linda Mithaug.
The council invited Alvarez to speak on pressing issues as he has done annually for the past several years. Last night’s discussion focused on the possible outsourcing of Special Education Aides, the proposal to bring out-of-district students back as well as attract students from other districts to generate revenue, and the transition of IEP services when a child changes schools.
Alvarez stated of the $28M spent on special education from the school budget $8M goes to aides. He suggested the district could save $2M by changing the procedure by which aides are hired. The proposal under consideration, which has been used by other districts, is to privatize the aides through coordination with a county agency that will allow the district to hire them back – this time without a union contract. It works like this: the district will eliminate the aides they currently employ; the aides will then be rehired by a county agency; and the district can select the aides they wish to hire back. The projected saving is essentially all in benefits the district would no longer be obligated to pay the aides.
Some parents expressed concern about losing good, qualified aides who already knew their children through this process as there are no guarantees the aides will choose to continue once the hiring procedures change. Others worried about diminishing the status of a job already not properly valued and the quality of candidates the new system would attract given the extremely challenging and taxing nature of the work.
“How much incentive do they have if they lose benefits and don’t get paid well?” one parent questioned. Another asked, “Why focus on the most vulnerable population in the school?”
Another parent asked whether the Montclair Education Association (MEA) – the union of which the aides are currently members – was in talks with the Board of Education (BOE) about the proposal.
“Not currently,” Alvarez responded.
But Alvarez insisted other districts such as Livingston, South Orange and Maplewood have had success with the proposed plan and that many of the aides choose to return. He pointed out that with 70% of Montclair’s population having no connection to the public school system, the district is under pressure to reduce costs. He stressed, however, he and the BOE are looking to find efficiencies without impacting the quality of services.
To that end the district hired the District Management Council (DMC), a think tank out of Boston that helps schools develop solutions to the problems confronting them. The DMC identified four areas of possible cost savings: More effective and efficient scheduling of aides; more efficient scheduling of speech services as well as examining the criteria for receiving the services; streamlining remedial intervention (find and use only the programs that work best – currently the district used 35 different programs); and bringing students placed out of district back into the district (currently 100 students are placed out of district).
“We are trying to do a better job at managing,” Alvarez said of all the suggestions.
Another thing that needs better management according to some parents was the transition of IEP services when a child moves from one school to another within the district. Some parents lament the lack of communication from the school prior to the start of a new school year. Often parents don’t know who the case manager and child study team is for their child until September and occasionally not until October or even November.
While noting the scheduling of all the students in all the schools is complicated and the school needs to ensure even distribution of students among case managers, Alvarez agreed the district needed to establish a set of criteria and guidelines so that every school within the district meets the same standards and protocols through the IEP transition process. He added he is very interested in having the principals meet and talk about best practices to make the process a smooth one.