Amazing solution to Mystery #3: Unknown Authorization

Try your decoder ring on this cryptic missive to solve Mystery #3, Case of the Unknown Authorization:

Major Division Highlights and Anticipated Challenges [for the Department of Educational Services]:
– Expand programming and placement options for elementary age students with severe Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD) and significant mental health needs. Budget & District Profile, page 79

When you break the MMSD’s crypt it means:

Create two new classrooms at Marquette Elementary for students with EBD;
Put two teachers, two aids, and a school psychologist in the two classrooms;
Spend a minimum of $350,000 on the classrooms.

A slick sleuth might ponder the source $350,000+ in the MMSD’s rare resources for a new program. Superintendent Rainwater has the answer: “The new program at Marquette was accomplished through a reallocation of funds within special education.”
And we guileless gumshoes believed that the MMSD had no money for new programs! At least, that’s what Superintendent Rainwater said in a Capital Times story which said:

In the early years of state controls, spending curbs could be managed by cutting overhead and administrative expenses, but they now are impacting directly on education. For example, the number of supplemental teachers deployed to help poor children has dropped from 54 to 24 people, he said. The controls also prevent any new programs from being developed. (emphasis added)

Now add insult to injury! On the official third Friday count of students, the $350,000 program had NO STUDENTS. That’s right! NO STUDENTS!
Which reinforces what this intrepid investigator suspected all along! The classrooms were hastily created by the MMSD administration without adequate consultation with district staff and the board of education. The planning should have been done and the students selected last winter and spring or done now for the program to begin in the second semester.
Put that $350,000 in your pipe and watch it go up in smoke, Sherlock.

14 thoughts on “Amazing solution to Mystery #3: Unknown Authorization”

  1. Thanks for the sleuthing, Ed, and for the regular diet of mystery du jour.
    As I recall, the average cost for one teacher (average, including benefits) would be c. $55,000/year.
    So, can I view this as the district choosing to spend $350,000 on remodeling for a program with no students rather than putting c. 6.5 teachers in classrooms? This is depressing beyond belief.
    Keep it up Ed – the budget is one bodacious quagmire. The little rays of light that you bring to it are a huge service.

  2. Before anyone misunderstands my post, I completely agree with the concept of having specialized services for students with severe mental health and behavioral problems.
    My concerns lie with creating a program hastily, and now it costs a substantial amount of money while the planning catches up. Additionally, we don’t know whether this particular program is the best model for serving these students, since no one other than the MMSD administration had input into its creation.

  3. Interesting. This links as they are right now (except for the Cap Times story and the budget profile) aren’t complete, so I can’t see the supporting evidence (yet) that the program has no students. I’d be very interested to see that, so I’m hoping that Ed updates the post at some point.
    While much of the special education mandate is unfunded and therefore is funded under the revenue cap, there are funding streams (medicaid reimbursement, federal flow-through grants, for example) that are outside the cap. Depending on the services being provided, there can be opportunities to expand special education programming without it all coming out of the cap.
    If the IEP team decides a student meets the mandated criteria for EBD and that a self-contained classroom is the least restrictive environment that meets the child’s educational needs, the district is required to provide an appropriate educational placement. So if the number of elementary students classified as EBD and requiring a self-contained classroom goes up, then the district pretty much has to add program capacity.
    But if the funds have been expended, the classrooms set up, but there were no students…well that would be very unusual. That is why more information would be helpful.

  4. Like Ed, I don’t question the need to provide mandated programs. I would note, however, that this example would be exceptional diligence on the part of the district. At least from what I’ve experienced as the parent of children who fall under mandated LD and TAG programming.
    When I pull up the districts enrollments by Special Education (albeit one-category-fits-all), it appears that several schools currently under the enrollment microscope of the East Attendance Area Task Force have similar percentages of Special Education populations (except Lapham, which is way higher).
    It seems odd that this would not have been mentioned during task force requests for specific information on classrooms and/or ‘other programs’ for which the building space is used. It also begs the question of why Marquette rather than Lowell or Emerson without public discussion.
    Finally, Ed, do you know what the $350,000 was spent on? I may be wrong, but it seems like a lot of money for remodeling two classrooms? Were there special accommodations required for this space? Other?

  5. Lucy, I only know what the administration provided in its explanation of costs, which includes no mention of remodeling:
    “The costs of salary and benefits for the staff associated with the EBD Alternative Elementary program totals $350,000. Of this amount, $82,000 supports the school psychologist position that is paid out of IDEA Flow-through grant funds. The remaining staff costs are charged to the local budget. The district receives reimbursement of approximately 28% special education categorical aide on staff costs funded from the local budget which amounts to approximately $75,000.”
    I believe that the figures do not include transporation costs for the students. Since they will come from all over the district, presumably, those costs could be pretty high.
    I also have no idea why Marquette was chosen for the program. It might have made more sense, as you suggest, to house it in a school with low enrollment.
    As I’ve said many times, you cannot take at face value anything from the MMSD administration. If the task force asked about building use by other programs and the administration gave an answer, the response may or may not be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

  6. Thanks, Ed. I misread your original post so that “create two new classrooms” and “spend a minimum of $350,000 on the classrooms” to refer to physical construction/remodeling rather than personnel costs. Which raise a whole new set of questions.
    Are you telling us that Marquette at this time has two teachers, two aides, and a psychologist on site with no students? Or is this to happen down the road?
    How many students is this program intended to serve? From where will they be drawn?
    And, what, if any, input have Marquette parents had in the process?
    I know that you probably don’t have these answers, but I’m asking in case you do….

  7. Lucy,
    The MMSD answered some of your questions in documents linked to the words “means” and “NO STUDENTS.”
    The program had no students in the official third Friday count. The MMSD says that it now has two — six to eight weeks into the school year — and anticipates more students by mid-November.
    The slow start probably arises because students with IEPs can’t be moved willy nilly around the district. If the IEP currently specifies placement in a regular classroom, it will have to be rewritten to specify a special ed classroom, assuming that I understand the process correctly. Rewriting an IEP, of course, can take weeks if not months. All of the planning and identification of students could have happened last winter and spring, so that the classrooms would have been fully functional at the start of this year.
    I am not certain whether Marquette parents or staff had any input into the creation of this new program, though I believe they did not.
    Again, I am not raising objections to the program. Children with severe behavioral problems probably need special programs to protect the safety of themselves and other students. I just raise concerns that it was not planned in advance, meaning it’s consuming money while not serving kids. Neither did the board weigh the value and need of this program against others that were cut or could have been expanded or created, since the langauge and funding were not clearly deliniated in the budget documents presented to the board by the MMSD administration.
    Additionally, I believe few people had a chance to decide whether this particular program configuration best serves these kids. I believe that some districts pull in extensive community resources to help with programming for children with severe mental issues. I doubt that this program taps the vast resources in Madison and Wisconsin.
    Thank you, Lucy, for taking an interest. It’s a case study in the ways to improve MMSD policies and procedures.

  8. If this is the program I think it is, it serves elementary aged kids that cannot attend a regular school (in a mainstream class or a special ed pull-out class). These kids would be banished from the MMSD at a very young age otherwise. My experience with special ed is that it is prohibitively expensive, so I’d expect an intensive alternative elementary program to be extraordinarily expensive. A 1 to 1 teacher student ratio is very appropriate!
    The Task Force issue is marginally relevant in that yes, the task force has asked for the building site plans and usage needs of every alternative program in the East Attendance area. Some of these figures were provided this past Tuesday and others were more specifically requested by Task Force members on Tuesday. I haven’t had time to digest the plethora of data, and I am not a task force member, simply an invitee. However, members of the task force are looking into ways to keep every neighborhood school open and one way is to utilize extra space more efficiently. This could range from siting an alternative program in an under-enrolled elementary school to siting various portions of MSCR in under-enrolled elementary schools (the goal being to free Hoyt School up for usage by our over-enrolled neighbors on the West side while maximizing East side space).
    Is the East Task Force getting all the details? Frankly there are so MANY details, these folks won’t know if they are getting 100% or only 92.567%. I can assure you, however, as I attend each meeting, that they are asking the right questions. Whether the MMSD is forthcoming or not is a different story, but in this snapshot in time, I think they are being open and honest about each program and it’s space needs.

  9. This response is to David –
    The question is not whether the district needs the program or whether kids would benefit from the program.
    Nor is it a question of whether the Task Force is or is not getting adequate data. When I was there the other night, there was some very clear discussion about whether the volumes of numbers presented to the Task Force are complete, meaningful, or appropriate for the questions that are being asked. This is not unique to the Task Force, which is, as you inform us, asking good questions. It is an ongoing element of the problems that make it hard for civilians to feel that they have credible information on which to base their opinions or decisions.
    At a time when the East attendance area is under tremendous pressure, everyone needs to have the clearest and information possible. I distinctly remember a request for information on total building usage and building usage for school instructional programs. That the program under discussion was uncovered through Ed’s ‘mystery of the day’ query would suggest that the creation of this program fell a bit short of transparency. Which makes it hard to feel confident that the task force members are being given the information that they need and want to do their jobs.

  10. Lucy: Hopefully the forthcoming site maps for each building will specify exactly what is in each square foot program-wise. Then nothing can be withheld by the administration (hopefully). I guess I wonder aloud: How will we ever be certain?

  11. The calculation of Marquette’s capacity should not include these two rooms, if I understand the calculations correctly.
    How did the calculations handle the 4-year-old program at Lapham? Depending on what the administration wants to prove, the program gets or doesn’t get included in the calculations. For example, if the administration wants to show that Lapham has excess capacity they include the physical space of the classrooms for the 4-year-old program in the calculation, but they don’t include the kids.

  12. Precisely Ed. That is why the Task Force asked for site maps that delineate the usage of every square foot of space in every building as opposed to the raw numbers of physical plant capacity and numbers of students. This way there will be no apples and oranges.

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