School systems set for study of special education costs, quality

Ten supervisory unions and districts have been selected for a study of special education that is intended to cut some costs and better serve students. Four of those chosen are newly formed unified union school districts under Act 46.

The plan is to review current methods against proven best practices and provide advice to schools that can be shared across the state.

The District Management Council, a consulting firm based in Massachusetts, will carry out the study.

Rebecca Holcombe
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
“DMC’s mission is to help systems figure out how to provide high-quality care for students in the most cost-effective way possible,” said Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe in a statement. “What we learn from these systems, we hope to share with others that were not able to participate.”

The firm is expected to outline its recommendations in a report to the Legislature by October.

Vermont spends $294 million a year for special education and identifies 16 percent of the state’s students as needing services. A study of Vermont’s spending during the 2014-2015 school year found the state could have saved $140 million by changing the way it delivers special education. Allan Odden and Lawrence Picus who wrote that report.

The Picus study said new research shows that many struggling students can be helped with extra tutoring and other resources and can then return to the general education population. The authors highlighted the work of the District Management Council in the study.

The Milton and Hartford supervisory districts and the Franklin Northeast and Bennington-Rutland supervisory unions were the large entities selected to work with DMC. Each of them has an average daily student membership of 1,500 or more.

The unified union school districts of Addison Central, Essex Town-Essex Junction, Washington West and Orange Southwest also will take part.

The final two supervisory unions chosen are Orleans Central and Windham Central.

Funding for the study comes from state and federal money.

The House Education Committee last spring put $200,000 into a pilot plan in the special education bill so 10 supervisory unions and districts could participate. The Senate didn’t want to take that much money out of the education fund. A conference committee agreed to set aside $75,000 for the project. The Agency of Education was able to supplement that with $375,000 from the federal government.

The final version of the special education law, Act 148, instructed the agency to select at least three supervisory unions or districts with an average enrollment of 1,500 or more and three unified union school districts merged under Act 46 for the study. The education agency chose four of each and added two more for a total of 10.

The agency has characterized the program as “technical assistance” to areas that want to “figure out ways to organize resources more strategically,” according to spokesperson Haley Dover.

The agency will pay DMC $45,000 for each participating supervisory union or district, and the locality will pay $5,000. Education officials say grants are available to cover that cost if needed.

When the pilot project made it through both legislative chambers, Rep. Emily Long D-Newfane, predicted it would make a difference for the state. She said that “down the road we will look back and say, ‘This is what changed the paradigm for the way we deliver special education services in Vermont, and it is saving money.’”

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Tiffany Danitz Pache

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  • “down the road we will look back and say, ‘This is what changed the paradigm for the way we deliver special education services in Vermont, and it is saving money”

    OMG….’down the road’ yet another ‘paradigm’ shift that’s ‘saving money’.

    What a long strange trip it’s been.

  • Chaunce Benedict

    New bread slicers for a bunch of supervisory unions / districts to the tune of mega bucks for an out of state consultant. When will we ever learn?

  • Michelle Massa

    If there was already a study done indicating that VT could have saved $140M – nearly half of the total spending on special ed – why on earth are we going to spend another $450K for a new study, even if most of that is federal money? Can’t we look to other states for best practices, do we really need to pay some out of state consultants to come to VT for another study? I realize Digger is local, but in this case it would be helpful for the writer to share some benchmarks for other states’ spending with similar demographics to VT and how their special ed programs rank nationally. I’m left with many gaps in knowledge as to where VT’s spending on special ed is on the distribution chart. A follow-up report including those metrics would be helpful.

  • Craig Gilborn

    Federal law dictates Special Ed requirement to states but picks up a hefty portion of each state’s expenditure for Sp. Ed. Confidentiality rules are cited locally, which give the impression of officials’ divulging very little to the public, as in how many Sp. Ed. clients are in each school district, what is the average cost in each district, how does that average compare with the average per client spent by the state? One or two seriously hampered clients might represent a quarter of the total spent for all children in any district. The wide disparity of need–mild to severe– cannot be predicted by a district, and the variety of professional skills brought to bear are costly, time consuming and arguably tangential to education. Pressure to find savings by reintroducing clients into the classroom is a temptation to be guarded against. Consultants may be inclined to justify their fees by reccomendation so like that.

  • Has anyone “googled” District Management Council to find actual school districts where they have improved services/performance and reduced costs?

    • Chaunce Benedict

      Yes, their web site (of course!) says they’ve done all kinds of great things in many places. A google of their CEO also seems to show that he had some troubles when he served as a school executive in Massachusetts and left the job abruptly and under a cloud. DMC appears to be a business / efficiency-oriented model and process. Do they have a record (PRIOR to their initial engagements in Vermont) of proven effectiveness in rural schools? Were other study/improvement models examined and vetted by the AOE and legislature before selecting DMC…through an RFP? Answers appears to be “NO” and “NO”.

  • Another “Study to End All Studies, The Definitive Guide”

  • Matt Young

    Here is an idea for a “study”….Why don’t we study the relationship between students finding success when they leave a public school and enroll in an independent school? I suppose the conclusion of this study wouldn’t be something the public education system would want to highlight.

    • Joe Hill

      I’m not sure that study would be very conclusive. It likely wouldn’t be able to control for the fact that students with such opportunities and well to do enough to afford an “independent” school (I.e. educated parents, access to enrichment, etc.)? If they were 2/3 FRL (like Burlington Schools) they wouldn’t make any money.. or have good test scores