Schools seem to have little control over the financial and human resources that are dedicated to special education. How can accountability be achieved?
Millions of tax dollars are spent to provide programs and services for students with disabilities with little, if any, managerial or fiscal control by boards of education. Accountability in special education may seem almost impossible to achieve.
Laws and regulations govern the way youngsters with disabilities are identified, evaluated, and placed in programs. Boards of education are responsible for providing for the needs of these students, based on decisions made by a team of professionals. The board cannot say no.
Principals have no control over decisions made at the staff level. The creation of the annual budget has no effect on controlling special education costs. The board of education must provide programs and services that are included in the students' education plan, regardless of whether or not enough money is appropriated. Many times boards of education must transfer funds from art or music programs, or combine classes to reduce the salary account in order to fund special education.
Is There Any Way Out?
One way to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed by frustration is to focus on the steps the administration can take to manage the process of special education. The goal should be to provide the most appropriate programs and services, while directing the most effective use of resources. The goal should be to provide the most appropriate programs and services while directing the most effective use of resources. For this article, I will focus on one activity that the regulations require of multidisciplinary teams and how to establish an accountability system that will save thousands of dollars. This should be viewed as a prototype of how other systems of accountability could be developed.
Some time ago, a large school district was desperate. The special education team told the school board that they had to complete more than 200 student reviews before the end of the school year, and it was already mid-March. They also reported that each person was assigned more than 100 individual cases on an ongoing basis.
The administration asked me to develop a work organization plan that would focus on completing the activities before the end of the school year. The board was concerned that they might be found out of compliance with both federal and state regulations if the work was not completed.
I set out to develop a written work organization plan outlining the schedual, activities, and resources necessary to complete all team reviews by the end of the school year. The teams meet annually with teachers, parents- and the student if appropriate- to review the Individualized Education Plan and to make any modifications and recommendations for program and placement for the next year. There is no choice- the district has a mandate to comply.
To develop the work organization plan, we needed accurate statements regarding the number of students requiring services. These data were not centralized, nor was accurate and up-to-date information readily available. Therefore, the first order of business was to develop a reporting format and have each team member complete the relevant information such as required dates for reviews.
A complete and up-to-date data bank with centralized pertinent information on each student was established. Once the information was gathered, the analysis of required activities and available resources was conducted.
The Analysis revealed that the district had an enrollment of 1787 students, 191 of whom were eligible for special education. The figure had been fairly consistent for the past five years. The multidisciplinary team had two full time and two part time members. Each team member actually had 41-59 assigned students, not 100 as had initially been reported.
The next thing to be determined was how long it should take to conduct a review meeting. The team member assigned to be case manager coordinated the meeting and ensured that all participants were available. It was determined that the meeting should take approximately one hour. Some organization and preparation had to take place in advance, and parents had to be contacted to schedule meeting times.
At the time I was hired, only 6 meetings had been conducted and 27 had been scheduled. The team members needed to meet with 191 students in the 69 days left in the school year.
Team members were employed on a variable schedule, so it was important to determine the number of days available for each person. A table was developed to illustrate the total full-time equivalent (FTE) days that each team member was available within the dates that the students were present. This was compared with the number of students that each team member needed to meet with, as well as the established time of one hour per meeting.
Table 1 illustrates that total FTE days that were needed to complete the program review, assuming that four were conducted in one day. We also developed an "X" factor that adds three days to each person's time frame for possible canceled or postponed meetings and to allow some meetings to extend beyond the suggested one hour. Extra days were added for cases outside the school district that required the team member to travel. One day per student was designated for such cases. Team members are identified as A, B, C, and D.
It became clear that there were enough days left in the school year for each team member to complete the reviews. Table 2 indicates that the total fulltime equivalent days that each team member was actually available within the 69 available school days and the total days needed to complete the reviews.
The only team member who might not have enough time was A. Therefore, we recommended that this person be increased to full time for the rest of the school year. This would bring her FTE days available to 69, allowing her ample time to complete 59 reviews. We also recommended hiring a part-time secretary to set up review board meetings with parents. The board of education accepted these recommendations.
The secretary had to be very assertive when contacting parents, as very few had responded to a letter of invitation to call for an appointment. In the past, no telephone calls had been made and many parents did not attend the review meetings, which cause the district to be out of compliance with federal and state regulations.
Once it was clear that the team members would be able to conduct all the review meetings in the time available, we put together a master calendar for the rest of the school year. At a meeting with the team members to select the days they needed to complete their assigned meetings. These were recorded on the master calendar, which was copied and distributed to each member. The secretary was then able to use the calendar to schedule meetings with parents.
We set up regular meetings to review the master calendar and check on progress. At these sessions, we made any necessary modifications to the master calendar. These meetings proved to be the most important aspect of this accountability system.
The team members each made a commitment to specific dates, which were placed on the master calendar and checked weekly. Attention was constantly focused on completing the activities that had been placed on the calendar. The result of this type of management planning and follow-up was that all the reviews were completed before the school year was over. Obtaining accurate statistics, planning and reviewing necessary activities, establishing a master calendar, securing commitment from the participants, following through, and having a clear focus equal accountability. If any of these elements are missing, the process will not be successful and the goal will not be reached.
Dr. Edward Dragan, provides education expert consultation for high-profile and complicated cases. As an educator and administrator, he has more than 35 years' experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of special education. He also has served as a state department of education official.
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