Greenwich School Board Demands Special Ed Data Amid Growing Costs and Enrollment

Greenwich Town Hall (CT Examiner)

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GREENWICH — Amid rising special education enrollment and costs, the school board demanded additional data last week to assess the effectiveness of recently implemented improvements. 

The 24-member Greenwich Special Education Advisory Council released its annual report in June, which detailed concerns like “untenable” caseloads for special education staff, increased student transfers to private schools, and the “silencing” of staff who recommended additional testing. At the time, board members vowed to work with the council — which includes parents, educators and staff — over the summer on addressing the report.

At the Thursday school board meeting, Stacey Heiligenthaler, chief officer of special education and student supports, reported that the district has since hired new special education teachers, social workers and school counselors, implemented new paraprofessional training and created a monthly newsletter to update staff on proper procedures in response to the council’s report.

But without certain data on performance, some members said it’s still unclear how exactly the district has addressed the council’s concerns. 

“It doesn’t give us enough information,” school board Chair Karen Kowalski said of the update.

Included in Heiligenthaler’s Thursday presentation was special education data for the 2022-23 school year that had not yet been certified by the state Department of Education, and state-certified 2021-22 data. The reports largely compared student performance, graduation rates and absenteeism to state standards.

Kowalski, however, demanded that the district give a more comprehensive presentation on student growth and teacher caseloads in March. She said long-standing board member requests for updated figures have gone unanswered, and that the district needs real-time data.

“We’ve asked for this time and time again,” Kowalski said. “And the fact that we didn’t have it now and we had made clear what we were looking for? I don’t see any reason for a delay.”

Kowalski said Greenwich’s performance is historically higher than the state average, so the state data is not particularly helpful. What the board needs now, she added, is year-over-year data comparisons, especially given the latest council report and increasing district costs.

According to the board’s 2024-25 budget request, the district gained 189 special education students this year, and expects enrollment to continue growing. The board requested five new teachers, two psychologists and three social workers to offset the caseload, resulting in a $4.7 million increase in special education salary expenses in its proposed budget.

Due to rising tuition costs for students out-placed at specialty schools, the board also requested an additional $350,000 for private school placements.

As special education costs rise, board member Michael-Joseph Mercanti-Anthony said, the group needs to see student performance trends to assess the value of Greenwich’s programming. 

“How effective is our programming?” Mercanti-Anthony asked. “I think there’s a couple of different ways that we probably need to be thinking about that.”

According to the latest data, elementary-aged students with disabilities were about 57 percent more proficient in English than the state average and about 69 percent more proficient in math. But at the meeting, members requested that Heiligenthaler return with in-district comparisons on assessment scores, as well as precise data on special education staff workloads and absenteeism rates.

Superintendent Toni Jones, however, said the board may have to wait for another analysis, as the district is in the middle of its budget season. 

“This is not coming back in March. We will not be ready,” Jones said. “Some of that data is not available.”

On Tuesday, Jones told CT Examiner that the board will hear numerous presentations by district staff addressing their questions in the coming months.

While board leaders and district administration have not yet met to discuss the special education data request, Jones said student performance in Community Connections and the Windrose programs would be addressed in March, and the preschool program would be discussed in May.

Regarding the specific changes made based on the 2023 council report, Jones said the district has honed-in on training staff in “trauma-informed care.”

According to the council, special education staff did not receive consistent social and emotional training across all schools and grade levels. The council alleged that the lack of training led to concerns of underreporting of restraint and seclusion, and recommended training all staff in trauma-informed care across the district. High school special education teachers have already received the training, Jones said, and social workers and counselors will be participating this year as well.

Jones said the district also immediately implemented council recommendations to improve Greenwich’s Wellness Center and strengthen special education access to district programs.

“GPS values the wonderful input we get from our partnership with the Special Education Advisory Council,” she said.