The Paul Vallas Legacy: “Bridgeport systematically violated special education laws”

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Paul Vallas hasn’t even left Bridgeport…In fact; the taxpayers of Connecticut and Bridgeport are picking up his salary and benefits for another month… But his legacy is already becoming clear.

Late last week, the Connecticut State Department of Education released a report blasting the Paul Vallas’ leadership and the Bridgeport School System because, among other violations, it “systematically failed to identify a number of students determined to be eligible for special education…”

The damage done to significant number of Bridgeport’s special education students and the violation of federal and state laws that are in place to ensure special education students get the services they need and deserve, is a direct result of Paul Vallas’ policy of arrogance and deceit.

Long time Wait, What? readers may remember a series of blog posts about the outrageous and inappropriate changes that Paul Vallas, in the name of cutting costs, was making to Bridgeport’s special education program.

The posts specifically highlighted items that the State Department of Education has now deemed illegal and inappropriate.

For background read;

UPDATE: Bridgeport’s Assault on Special Education: Time for Commissioner Pryor to intervene… (August 28, 2012)

News Flash: Team Vallas Addresses Special Education Funding Issue (sort of) (August 23, 2012)

What is Paul Vallas doing to Bridgeport’s Special Education Students? (August 21, 2012)

As the Connecticut Post reported this week:

“In response to an October 2013 complaint filed by the Center for Children’s Advocacy against the district, the state conducted an investigation and determined that the district violated its obligations to students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and state law.

Most of the examples cited in the complaint were from the 2012-13 school year, when under outgoing Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas there was a concerted effort to bring down special education costs.”

The report is a chilling reminder of what happens to individual students when administrators are allowed to disregard their legal and moral duties to children.

The Connecticut Post highlighted a few examples including;

One of the students cited in the complaint had struggled academically since first grade, failed and repeated sixth grade. Because of his age was advanced to high school last year, where he failed every subject. Even so, the district never held a meeting to discuss the student’s suspected educational or emotional disabilities or potential support services that might help him academically.

Another student was placed on homebound instruction for most of the 2012-13 school year due to mental health issues, but a placement meeting was not convened until July 2013.

Students at Harding, Bassick, Marin [schools] went without receiving a Planning and Placement Team assessment as is required under a federal Child Find mandate.

Paul Vallas and the Bridgeport Schools literally put some of Connecticut’s most vulnerable students at risk… all so that he, along with the former Board of Education, Mayor Bill Finch, Governor Malloy and Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor could crow about Vallas’ miraculous ability to balance he school budget.

A copy of the State Department of Education’s finding can be read here: http://blog.ctnews.com/education/files/2014/01/State-findings.pdf

You can read the Connecticut Post story here: http://blog.ctnews.com/education/2014/01/24/bridgeport-systematically-violated-special-education-laws/

Take the time to skim the actual State Department of Education report.

The sad truth is that as terrible as these stories are, if the State Department of Education does its job and investigates Steve Perry and Capital Prep Magnet School, the results will be disturbingly similar….if not worse.

Charter Schools and the systematic discrimination of special education students

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Most charter schools are failing to take their fair share of students who require special education services

You can always count on Connecticut resident, fellow blogger and public education advocate, Jonathan Kantrowitz, to explore the important issues with a sophisticated, fact-based approach.

In a new blog post entitled, “Why the Gap? Special Education and New York City Charter Schools,” Jonathan Kantrowitz examines data coming out of New York City about the failure of charter schools to take and keep students who need special education services.

Kantrowitz writes;

This studyfrom the Center on Reinventing Public Education, uses NYC data to analyze the factors driving the gap in special education enrollment between charter and traditional public schools. Among the findings:

  • Students with disabilities are less likely to apply to charter schools in kindergarten than are regular enrollment students. This is the primary driver of the gap in special education enrollments.
  • The gap grows as students progress through elementary grades, largely because charter schools are less likely than district schools to place students in special education—and less likely to keep them there.
  •  The gap also grows as students transfer between charter and district schools. Between kindergarten and third grade, greater proportions of regular education students enter charter schools, compared to students with special needs.
  • There is great mobility among special education students, whether they attend a charter or traditional public school. Close to a third of students in special education leave their school by the fourth year of attendance, whether they are enrolled in charters or traditional public schools.

Given the complex factors revealed by the study, the report cautions against simplistic policy solutions like quotas and enrollment targets. Instead, policy attention might be more usefully spent identifying and replicating effective academic or behavioral interventions that allow schools to declassify students with mild disabilities, and investigating why parents of students with special needs are not choosing charters early on.

You can read his full blog post here: http://educationresearchreport.blogspot.com/2013/10/why-gap-special-education-and-new-york.html

What is clear is that many charter schools want to claim the mantle of being public schools, but the majority fail to take their fair share of students who need special education services, just as they fail to take their fair share of students who need extra help when it comes to learning the English language.

There are undoubtedly charter schools that understand the fundamental role of public schools and do make a real effort to provide educational opportunities to the full range of students, but those charter schools are outliers compared to the vast majority of  their colleagues.

As another New York City study found;

“…[NYC] charter schools enroll a smaller percentage of special education students than do district schools. But more importantly, charter schools do not enroll the same kind of special ed students as the district schools. While special education enrollment in charters grew over the last year, the special ed students who attend charters have much lower levels of disability than their special ed counterparts at neighboring district schools.

Practically none of the 57 charters we reviewed enroll “self-contained” students, the highest category of need, who must be taught in separate classrooms with one teacher for every 6 or 12 students. Very few enroll “collaborative team teaching” students, who are educated in mixed classrooms with two teachers, one a specialist. These two higher-need categories of special education students by and large attend district schools. Students who require the less-intensive “related services,” such as speech or physical therapy, are by far the most prevalent special education type in the charters. ”

Similar observations have been made in Connecticut.

Even at the most basic level, most Connecticut Charter Schools consistently fail to educate their fair share of students who need special education services

Here is the latest available data on students needing special education services in selected district schools in Connecticut versus selected charter schools in Connecticut

District/School 2010-2011 % Special Education 
Hartford Public Schools 12.5%
AF – Hartford Academy 7.7%
Jumoke Academy* 2.3%
New Haven Public Schools 10.8%
AF – Amistad 5.4%
AF – Elm City* 4.0%
Bridgeport Public Schools 12.1%
AF-Bridgeport 7.3%
Park City Prep 8.4%
Bridge Academy 12.2%

(*) 2010-2011 report not on file, data is 2009-2010

While charter school funding is the fastest growing area of Governor Malloy’s education budget, the evidence is clear that Connecticut’s charter schools are consistently failing to provide educational opportunities to special education students and students who need extra help with the English language.

Vallas “no bid” special education software deal in Bridgeport continues to be a disaster

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It was one of the first non-bid contracts that Bridgeport’s “Superintendent of Schools,” Paul Vallas pushed through.  Using a half-baked “sole-source” rationale, Vallas hired a company that he had worked with in Chicago and Philadelphia without using any bidding process.

The contract promised Bridgeport a state-of-the-art special education software program “for free,” as long as the Public Consulting Group was given a lucrative Medicaid reimbursement contract.

The new software was scheduled to come on-line July 1, 2012.

Soon, free became $100,000 plus with more “option costs” to come.

July 1, 2012 came and went…with no Easy IEP software

Then August, September, October, November, December 2012 and still no software.

January, February and March 2013 came and went without a working version of the Easy IEP special education software.

Finally, Easy IEP was scheduled to go live on April 1, 2013 with a complete shift by the end of April.

Here we are in May 2013 and multiple Bridgeport teachers and professional staff have reported that the “state-of-the-art” software is such a mess that special education teachers are relegated to hand-writing their IEPs and producing reports in the same way they were doing it 40 years ago.

This is the most important part of the year for updating IEPs and meeting state and federal mandates for special education reporting.

Instead of the promised comprehensive system, teachers and staff are reporting chaos.

Not only are students in need of special education services being short-changed but the cost to Bridgeport and Connecticut taxpayers could be astronomical.

Just take a look at the news out of New York City when the software system implemented by the Bloomberg Administration fell apart;

NEWS: Overtime bill for staff using special ed system totals $38.5M

 

The city doled out $38.5 million in back pay to schools staff who were wrongly required to work overtime on a buggy special education data system, according to payment details released today by the education department.

Nearly 30,000 therapists, special education teachers, paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists received the overtime payments this month after an independent arbitrator ruled in January that the Department of Education violated the United Federation of Teachers’ contract. The first round of payments, on April 12, totaled $2.6 million for 1,700 occupational and physical therapists and the second and final payment — $35.9 million — went out to the rest of employees today.

The total number of educators who qualified for overtime far exceeded UFT’s estimates, which hovered at around 10,000. The UFT filed the labor complaint in mid-2011, charging that staff should not have been required to work outside of their contractual school day.

The unintentional overtime centered on time that educators spent plugging data into the Special Education Student Information System. According to teachers and union staff, the program does not have basic functions that are routinely found in other computer programs, such as an ‘auto save’ feature.

In a statement today, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said that SESIS continues to be unnecessarily time-consuming for teachers and a wasteful example of the city’s pricey technology contracts.

“Thousands of hours that teachers could have spent helping kids were wasted trying to get this boondoggle of a computer system to work,” Mulgrew said. “But just as CityTime cost the city millions of dollars year after year, until SESIS is fixed or scrapped it will continue to be a money pit.”

Department of Education officials defended SESIS, which tracks student attendance and keeps a record of services that special education students receive.

“Keeping accurate and complete records on services provided to special needs students is necessary to ensure that we are providing quality services, and we are working to ensure that all staff are properly compensated in accordance with the arbitration award,” Connie Pankratz said.”

Meanwhile in Connecticut, neither Mr. Vallas nor the Bridgeport Board of Education has explained what is actually happening with Vallas’ “no-bid” special education software system in Bridgeport.

The price of Paul Vallas’ no-bid contracts continues to grow…

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Will anyone stand up for taxpayers of Connecticut and Bridgeport?

Now that Bridgeport’s illegal Board of Education has been removed and a democratically elected board has taken its place, perhaps someone – anyone – will begin to ask the important questions that need to be asked.

At the very top of the list is the growing controversy surrounding Bridgeport Superintendent of Schools, Paul Vallas’, decision to use a “no-bid” contract to buy new special education software from a company that he has done business with in the past.

Easy IEP was purchased as part of a larger contract after Team Vallas doctored a document seeking to bypass the laws and regulations governing Bridgeport’s required bidding process.

However, despite the fact that Vallas signed the contract on April 23, 2012, the promised conversion has yet to take place, and Bridgeport’s School System continues to utilize the earlier company’s software, at an undisclosed price.

The Easy IEP contract was signed, taxpayer funds were committed, and, as the contract makes clear in its Exhibit C1, the new system was supposed to be in place for the 2012-2013 school year.  In fact, the contract requires that the “School System agrees to implement FES Services beginning April 2012,” and that the “School System agrees to implement the Cost Reporting Services in July 2012.”

No public agency would ever be allowed to get away with these types of violations.

Wait, What? readers will recall this situation.  It was and continues to be a disturbing reminder of what happens when public officials inappropriately enter into no-bid contracts with companies that they are associated with.

When Vallas arrived in Bridgeport, he hired the Public Consulting Group (PCG), a company that has received millions of dollars in previous contracts thanks to Vallas.

Vallas explained in one of his early PowerPoint Presentations that, “PCG Group is auditing the district’s Medicaid reimbursement process. PCG has an outstanding reputation for assessing and improving the process in order to obtain optimal reimbursement for eligible students.  Any additional revenue obtained by the district will be applied to offset the cost of out- of-district tuition for special education students.”

Weeks later, the PCG Group provided Vallas with their “audit,” and lo and behold, just as they had done in Philadelphia, the consulting company recommended that Bridgeport HIRE THEM to implement a Medicaid reimbursement project.  And to sweeten the deal, PCG said they would provide Bridgeport with a special deal on their special education software, a program called Easy IEP.

The only issue was that Bridgeport already had a special education software package, called “Clarity,” to track and coordinate Bridgeport’s special education program.  But that fact didn’t stop Vallas, who quickly dropped Clarity and signed a contract for Easy IEP.

Although Connecticut and Bridgeport laws and regulations require contracts over $7,500 to be put out to bid, Vallas simply by-passed those requirements.

In order to defend their action, Team Vallas submitted a “Justification for Sole Source Acquisition.”  Their claim was that PCG’s product was so special and so unique that it wasn’t even worth soliciting bids from other companies.

However, it turns out that almost every point that Paul Vallas and his team used to rationalize skipping a competitive bidding process was false.

Vallas’ inappropriate use of a “no bid,” sole-source contract to purchase the Easy IEP software is now having a real and negative impact on taxpayers in Connecticut and Bridgeport.  However, neither the Bridgeport Board of Education nor the media have investigated this contract or the other “no-bid” contracts that will cost Connecticut and Bridgeport taxpayers more than $13 million dollars.

Bridgeport’s Mayor Bill Finch claims that he, rather than the voters, should be allowed to choose the members of the Board of Education.  If he were truly concerned about the waste of scarce resource,s he would be demanding an investigation of why his administration approved a no-bid contract signed by his hand-picked superintendent of schools, a contract that is now wasting precious Bridgeport and state tax dollars.

Mr. Mayor, it’s not to late.

 

 

Anyone? Will any Bridgeport official stand up for the children with special needs in your city?

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Mayor Bill Finch, the Bridgeport City Council and Bridgeport’s illegal Board of Education all voted for the education budget developed by Paul Vallas, Bridgeport’s interim superintendent of schools.

As previously noted here at Wait, What?, the biggest cut in the entire Bridgeport school budget was for the funds needed to support Bridgeport students who require special education services.

After the issue was raised and school administrators faced growing concerns about these significant budget cuts, Team Vallas issued a memo explaining that they had everything under control.

In the August 22 memo, Team Vallas explained;

  • There was a $1 million dollar budget cut that came from eliminating 14 special education teachers who were no longer needed.  By way of an explanation, they memo explained that Vallas had developed an “updated formula for allocation of special education teachers and paraprofessionals that is consistent with IEP mandates and takes into consideration student needs. The formula revision is built on a focused realignment of resources, designed to fiscally support the proper staffing levels to meet the individualized instructional needs of our students.”

In English this means that each remaining special education teacher would have more students and more students with special education needs would be placed into regular classes.

  • Second, there was a $2.6 million dollar cut by taking some of the most high-need students out of their existing placements and returning them into the Bridgeport school system.  The Vallas memo said that, “the district has established new, specialized programs in various schools to accommodate the return of special education students from out of district settings, with parental consent and full compliance with all mandated special education procedures.”

So, according to Vallas, as a result of the new, specialized programs that have been created, about one or every five students placed in special, out of district programs, would now be returned to Bridgeport schools.

But today, on the first day of school, we learn that the Bridgeport School System has suddenly started advertising for a number of special education assistants and therapeutic support facilitators.

They STARTED advertising for the positions now?

But Vallas and his staff said that everything was already in place!

Let’s face it.

If Team Vallas had been telling the truth about where things stood, these positions would have been filed long ago, the new employees would have already been trained and they would now be working to assist students will disabilities.

The children who need special education services and their parents deserve better.

In fact, all the parents and children of Bridgeport deserve better.

For one thing, they deserve to be told the truth.

But the question is; will Bridgeport’s officials step forward and ensure that their citizens start getting the truth or will they continue to allow the lies and double-speak to continue?

What a Shock! It is the Biggest Cut to Bridgeport’s School Budget and no official asks a question!

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Last night, Bridgeport’s illegal Board of Education met for the last time.  News coverage of the event can be found in the Connecticut Post (link here).

Although Board of Education members were given an update on the school’s system’s $225.2 million operating budget, there was no discussion about the single biggest cut in the school budget – that being services for students who need special education services.

As  noted earlier here at Wait, What?,  Bridgeport’s “official” education budget cut $1 million and 14 special education teachers from the school-based special education programs and cut more than $2.6 million dollars of the funds that are used to place those students with the greatest needs in the most appropriate settings, outside of the district.  This is a 20 percent cut to outplacement program.

The magnitude of this cut for placing students in alternative educational settings means that Paul Vallas is assuming that approximately 20%, or one out of every five students, who have been placed in a specialized setting, will be moved back into Bridgeport school system.

Such a change would require that Bridgeport revise each student’s IEP (Individualized Education Program), a process that is both complex, lengthy and requires full participation by all of the individuals and entities that are responsible for determining each child’s educational and social needs.

There is absolutely no indication that Team Vallas as begun such a massive rewrite of student’s IEPs or even that such a charade could be pulled off, since federal and state laws about special education services specifically require students to be placed in the most appropriate settings.

Additional proof that this budget move is nothing more than a gimmick, is the fact that the new budget makes no attempt to provide the additional resources that would be needed to care for those children, if they were actually moved back into the Bridgeport schools.

Finally, the 20% reduction in spending for out of school placements completely overlooks the fact that many placements are controlled not by the City of Bridgeport, but by the state Department of Children and Families.  These placements are often associated with foster care or other state related programs and few, if any, of these placements can be impacted by Bridgeport’s school administrators.

The truth is that Bridgeport’s illegal Board of Education voted for this budget.

And yesterday, the members of the illegal Board of Education wouldn’t even demand that Vallas explain the cuts, even though these cuts would have a devastating impact on some of our state’s most vulnerable children.

Since the members of the illegal Board of Education refused to do their jobs, Bridgeport residents should step in and demand that Vallas explain the following:  (1) What factors did he use to decide that the cut in out of district placements should be 20%, (2) how many Bridgeport students will be impacted by this cut, (3) how many IEPs have been changed to remove the out-of-district placements that had previously been ordered,  and (4) how many children have been moved back into the school system to date.

The parents and children who utilize special education services deserve better.

If someone can get Team Vallas to come clean on this outrageous cut, please post his answer here.