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school_lockers120It may have been the Lansing Schools' dirty little secret that it has had problems fulfilling IEPs (Individualized Educational Programs) that are legally required for students with special needs.  Some parents, at least, have expressed their frustration about getting IEP requirements fulfilled for their children, both in private conversations and negotiations with the school system.  Monday the Board Of Education found itself in a contentious discussion of whether Superintendent Stephen Grimm should be empowered to hire an outside consultant to quantify procedural lapses that may not only have caused unfulfilled IEPs, but may also have cost the district $100,000 or more in legal fees and lost reimbursements over the past three years.

The item seemed innocuous enough on the Lansing School Board agenda, a simple board approval that would just take a moment.  But board members questioned hiring a consultant from the New York State School Boards Association to evaluate Lansing's administration of special education.  Teacher's Union President Stacey Kropp spoke against spending $15,000 for something she said does not directly impact students, listing programs that were cut this year that could have been paid for by that money.  She urged the board to charge the new Director of Special Education to undertake his or her own study when that position is filled in January.  Board member Christine Iacobucci agreed.

"If we're going to hire a new special education director I really don't understand why that person can't evaluate our program," Iacobucci said.  "If we were hiring a superintendent would we hire an outside party assess the district before we hired him?  No, we hired Steve because he's the expert who is going to do that."

Board member Aziza Benson also questioned the timing of the survey given that a new Director of Special Education is in the process of being hired.  Grimm said he is consulting with the two final candidates for the Director position to determine whether, if hired, they would prefer the study in place when the successful candidate starts in January, or to have the study done concurrently with the new Director starting.

Grimm says the report will help the new Director of Special Education understand the current state of things, and that it will impartially identify areas for improvement.  He says it will provide a benchmark that a new leader can build on to move forward.  He says the district has not looked at the special education program at a granular level up to this point, and that it is at the point where it must be quantitatively assessed.  The results of having the study will directly impact students' everyday educational experience, as well as providing more funding that could further improve programming.

"We really need to," he says.  "We've experienced problems with challenges to CSE (Committee in Special Education) Placement and meeting IEPs (Individualized Educational Program).  It's very important to me.  Very important.  The most critical thing that I can do and honor is our service to the individual child.  More so than to the community, parents... it's what we're really doing for that person, that child."

According to the U.S. Department of Education each child who is identified as a special needs student must have a truly individualized IEP.  That document lays out the course of study for the individual student, and is developed with input from testing, teachers, and parents.  In essence it becomes an official contract that must then be fulfilled by the school district.  Statistics and reporting are part of the follow up that is supposed to insure that each special education student is receiving the services and education contracted for in the document.   When that does not happen parents have limited recourse that can lead to legal proceedings.

The worst legal case in the past few years eventually came to a successful mediated agreement, yet the district ended up spending $30,000, mainly in legal fees.  But Grimm says the district is exposed to risk when it is not in compliance with state and federal regulations and education law.  There have been about a dozen other incidents that required the district to seek legal advice that Grimm estimates cost $50,000 or $60,000.  He says that some of that activity is normal in the operation of a school district.

Grimm says he doesn't have data to document the extent of the problem.  He has received complaints from parents, some of which have gone to the level of seeking legal advice for the district.  The worst such incident was a case that was settled in arbitration before it got to the level of going to court at a cost to the district of $30,000, the result being an IEP that satisfied the parents and district officials.

In fact the past two external audits and the last internal audit that the district needs to examine its processes to recover this grant money.  When Grimm began working at Lansing three years ago a state audit showed that more than $500,000 had not been reimbursed in 2005 because the district had failed to report properly.  When he tried to learn what the district had to do to claim it he was told that it was too late to recover that money.

This has resulted in two kinds of consequences to the district.  The first is the loss of funding either because of legal expenses or unclaimed reimbursements.  The second is the erosion of children's special needs education when the conditions of IEPs are not fulfilled.

"I'm not satisfied that we are doing that right now, and I want to know," Grimm says.  "One way to find out is by commissioning a study like this.  It worries me when that happens a couple of times (IEPs not being fulfilled) because it makes me think 'let's figure out where we are.'  We can audit all the IEPs.  Are we offering everything we need to for special education students?"

He says that a study by an outside consultant will provide a balanced snapshot of where the district is now, and provide insight into what must be done to improve what may be sloppy implementation of procedures or procedures that themselves may not be well crafted enough to both serve students and education law.  He notes that the special education budget is about a tenth of the overall school budget, and that while $15,000 is not to be sneezed at, it is a relatively small amount of money that could result in paying for itself many times over for years to come.  Grimm says that the study will be invaluable to the new Director of Special Education, shortening the time it will take to 'hit the ground running,' and that the information produced will be valuable to the Board Of Education in the coming months as they struggle with yet another impossible budget with diminishing state aid.

The study will provide that data, giving the district a better idea of the extent to which it has been culpable for 1) not developing satisfactory IEPs and/or satisfying their requirements, and 2) not documenting services to special needs children that would have yielded reimbursements from Medicaid and federal grants.  It will poll staff attitudes and perceptions about providing special education, budgetary needs, and review processes currently used and present recommendations for tightening procedures.

Grimm stresses that administering special education is complicated by countless variables such as children with special needs moving into the district or moving out at any given time, confirming that the numbers of students are accurate on a day to day basis, and monitoring each and every IEP.  He says that the systems in place are flawed, and that is more to blame than individuals who have been attempting to administer those systems.

"You really don't want to hope that you're meeting regulations," Grimm says.  "You want to make sure that you are.

"It's not about not trusting the people who are here," Grimm says.  "The people that are in the trenches that are doing the work every day are the most valuable people in the process of delivering a good education to everybody.  And they do it on a daily basis.  But an alternative piece is I want to make sure that when we're spending our money that we're spending it wisely and efficiently.  Because we haven't looked at it (closely yet) I know that we're going to find efficiencies."

Grimm's response to Kropp's concern is that the possible efficiencies the study will find will result in savings and monies claimed every year going forward.  He says that even if they only find $15,000 worth of annual savings, that adds up to $60,000 over four years, and he says he is confident that the study will find more than that.  Those benefits and additional funding will go to programming that directly impacts special education students, not just in this single budget year.  Additionally he wants to make sure that the processes used are modified to insure that IEPs are properly fulfilled, which he says supports special education teachers and administrators by insuring that they and the district are not liable for not carrying out their legal obligations.

In the end the board voted 5/1 to allow Grimm to hire the consultant with Iacobucci voting no.  Other board members charged Grimm with asking for specific data in the final report.

"There are so many reasons to have a good analytical audit done," Grimm says.  "There are budgetary reasons, but there are also program reasons, which is the most important thing to make sure that we are delivering not only day to day services, but outstanding ones.  Why not be world class?  Why shouldn't a special ed student or any other student have a great educational experience?  Why should it just be good or not so good?  I don't think there is an excuse for that.  We need to deliver that on a daily basis over 13 years so that's what we can guarantee."

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