This is going to take A LOT of Box Tops!
Many parents of special needs children have been upset with the whole process related to the Special Education Audit (or opportunity review, as HCPSS calls it). Most of the concerns are over the lack of fiscal responsibility, lack of transparency, and lack of parent inclusion. When it comes to addressing special needs children, our Superintendent and Board of Education have taken an unfortunate series of missteps. We can learn some vital lessons from neighboring counties. Here are just a few.
First, the Special Education Audit contract, which the Board of Education approved for $300,000 in June 2014, was not competitively bid with the justification that it was not practical to obtain a competitive bid, per Board policy 4050. It is noteworthy that our Superintendent has an expensive membership in the organization that was paid to do the audit, paid for by the County. In contrast, Frederick County schools have recently awarded to the same consultant, but their contract was competitively bid.
Second, the consultant conducted only a single focus group, which involved a small group of hand-selected parents. Some of those parents – all from advocacy groups – don’t even have kids in the school system anymore. On the other hand, Montgomery County is having 12 public sessions throughout their county for parent input into their special education audit.
Third, HCPSS sent their parent survey only to those people who had signed up for Special Ed emails from the school system. Only 277 parents responded, and there are almost 5,000 kids on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in Howard County. (I know the number because, after two Maryland Public Information Act requests, I got some of the parent survey consolidated results. After my first request, I was told that the contractor had ownership of the data.) Again, in contrast, Montgomery County is mailing surveys to their parents translated in many languages. Also, whereas Montgomery County is using survey questions that are appropriate for a true special education review, many Howard County parents are unhappy with the leading questions on our survey.
Fourth, the Superintendent has refused to release the preliminary and final reports from the consultant, even to Board of Education members. Central office staff members have used those reports to create their own pared down report that was released to the public on the HCPSS website. Do you wonder, as I do, what might be in the full report that cost taxpayers $300,000?
Fifth, and possibly most egregious, parents are not allowed to be part of the ongoing reform process to implement the recommendations. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states:
Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by-- strengthening the role and responsibility of parents and ensuring that families of such children have meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children at school and at home.
Parents would like a seat at the table so we can share our experiences and help improve the education of students with disabilities. Our efforts would also benefit teachers’ understanding of disabilities, so that the time and attention given to all students is improved. When teachers do not understand techniques needed for children with different learning styles – the vast majority of whom are in general education classes – the result is often behavior problems. Behavior problems then cause the teacher to address them, taking attention away from all other students.
In summary, our Board of Education approved a $300,000 contract that was not competitively bid to an organization for which the County pays our Superintendent’s membership dues. After an audit process that included minimal parent input, the Superintendent has not only refused to release the reports to the public (whereas taxpayer dollars paid for the reports) but has withheld them from the Board of Education members who approved the contract. This lack of accountability is disturbing to all, given that over 60% of County tax dollars goes to the school’s budget needs. We all better get saving those Box Tops some more.