WESTERLY — A consultant hired by the School Committee will study the school district’s delivery of special education and other student support services to determine whether improvements are needed and if current resources are adequate and properly deployed.
The committee voted unanimously last week to authorize Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau to enter into a contract with The Futures Healthcore LLC of Springfield, Mass., to perform the evaluation. In addition to special education, student services, also known as pupil services, includes prevention and intervention activities and work to remove barriers to learning. The work is carried out by a variety of school staff including school social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists and paraprofessionals.
“It’s a large department and it’s a very costly department. We need to make sure that we’re doing everything in the best interest of kids but we also have financial constraints and we have to be sure we’re being as efficient as we possibly can,” Garceau said during the committee’s May 8 meeting.
The firm will look at a variety of aspects of students services including whether the district’s paraprofessional staffing level is appropriate and out of district placements for students whose needs can not be met at schools in the district. Through its work the firm will shed light on questions such as, “When does it make sense to create a very specialized special education program in district?” Garceau said.
The firm will most likely start its work in the remaining weeks of the current school year by starting the process of interviewing district staff and work with the district’s finance department during the summer. The firm will interview teachers and principals in the fall and will also conduct a survey of parents. Garceau said he anticipates the company would submit a report on its findings before Christmas.
Some parents, aware that a study was being considered, have been critical, saying it is motivated solely by budgetary concerns. School Committee member Mary Adams asked that efforts be made to give parents a more involved role in the study in addition to the survey. “I think a lot of parents would like a voice and that may help them understand the process,” Adams said.
“I see this as a very positive thing for the district and especially for students to make sure that their needs are being met ... we’re going to have an outside set of eyes to make sure we are meeting our expectations to all students,” Adams said.
The idea of a review of students services was first broached while the School Committee was working on its 2019-20 budget. Garceau, who started his position in July of 2017, said a district-wide review of all services was also discussed but officials decided to start with student services, which he said accounts for about $14 million worth of the district’s annual operating budget.
“We felt, or at least a number of us did, that pursuing a review of that programming first made sense to see if there were opportunities to become more efficient with the services we offer and perhaps potentially do that in more cost effective ways,” Garceau said.
In addition to potentially recommending changes, Garceau said, it is also possible the firm could conclude, “There’s nothing here that we could even comment on because you’re firing on all cylinders and this is as tight as can be.”
The Futures Healthcore LLC’s bid of $15,500 was the lowest of four submitted by companies that responded to the district’s request for proposals. The highest bid was $69,315. The Futures Healthcore LLC recently completed a similar study in Barrington, Garceau said.