Last Thursday night at the first board meeting of November, Ms. Amy Sledge, the director of the special education department of Huntsville City Schools offered her first presentation to the board of education since she discussed “Project Search” in 2013. This was the first overview presentation on special education since Mr. Aaron King (inexplicably since he had nothing to do with special education at that time or since) offered a presentation on November 17, 2011.
I suppose the board gets an overview of special education every four years whether it needs it or not.
I’ve posted a couple of videos of the meeting on YouTube. If you’d like to watch the entire presentation, you may watch it below. The presentation was approximately 25 minutes long. Part 1 covers Ms. Sledge’s presentation. Part 2 covers the questions that were asked by the board and Mr. Carlos Matthews during the Q&A part of the meeting.
If you prefer to read a transcript of the meeting with better quality slide, you may do so here.
While there was much in the presentation that deserves our consideration, I want to draw your attention to just three main parts: the SPED aides, SPED Federal Funding, and Dr. Wardynski’s willful attack on special education children. I’m sorry, but this is going to be a long post. Feel free to read it in multiple sittings.
Number of Aides Returns to 2010-2011 Levels
Ms. Sledge, Mr. Taylor, and Dr. Wardynski spent a significant amount of time last week discussing the increase the district has seen in Special Education aides since 2011. They claimed that this represented a significant increase in services to the special ed students.
It’s interesting that they would choose the 2011-2012 school year as their baseline since that is also the year after the district suffered through not one but two reductions in force. If you recall, those RIFs hit special education aides particularly hard. In fact, no other group of employees were cut as deeply in 2011. Those two RIFs saw 99 special education aides positions cut.
About this increase in the number of aides, Dr. Wardynski had this to say:
Wardynski: Amy, we’re going from about a hundred and fifty-one aides to, uh, 250?
Sledge: Yes sir, over the past five years. [We are returning to the level of aides from 2010-2011 school year.]
McCauley: So we increasing . . .
Wardynski: So a lot more services for kids.
Sledge: A lot more services.
Respectfully, to Ms. Sledge, Ms. McCaulley, and Dr. Wardynski, we have not increased services. We have simply returned the number of aides assisting our children to the level they were at six years ago.
But the exaggeration doesn’t end there.
Cost of SPED Aides
The chart above show another pattern: the number of HCS employed aides has steadily declined while the number of “Appleton” aides has steadily increased.
To defend this increase, and to criticize the IDEA 2004 law, Dr. Wardynski had this to say about the Appleton aides:
Wilder: Wasn’t there a waiver we submitted a few years back as far as differentiating the amount for, uh, for special ed students, based on the severity of their disability?
Wardynski: There was a waiver with regard to maintenance of effort under the, uh, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. You have a level of spending within a school system. You have to maintain that level or increase it. Uh, what, that leads to a lot of inefficiency. Uh for example, the aides. An aide that’s a Huntsville City School aide probably costs a third more. Is that about right?
Wardynski: Than an Appleton aide. And it’s not that the services are a third better. It’s the benefit package and the tenure. So if we have an aide who gains tenure, the child may have moved on, we no longer require the services of that aide. But we have to keep the aide because the aide’s got tenure. We had aides who were supposed to be working with big teenage boys and stuff, being able to lift them up and things.
Wardynski: They couldn’t even lift a book. So, very inefficient system. So we’ve engineered our system so the money is focused on the children, the right aide, the right time, um, with the right training. And that allows us to be much more efficient. Well that’s something that is not normally allowed for by the federal government is being more efficient. Um, so we had to go through a process with them to explain we’ve actually increased services, held costs constant, as the federal government’s reduced it’s resources that it’s provided to us. Uh, and so, it’s transportation services, it’s a whole range of things we do, where we don’t just throw money at the problem, but provide the service efficiently and meet. So our aides have gone up from 150 to 250. But the spending didn’t go up at the same rate. The reason is we’ve found better ways to, to provide the aides.
Setting aside the ad hominem and hyperbolic attack on the lack of physical strength of the aides involved, let’s look at Dr. Wardynski’s and Mr. Taylor’s two claims about HCS aides: “they probably cost a third more,” and “tenure” means that since children move on we have aides standing around with nothing to do. Are they correct in their claims?
Attack on Tenure
First, let’s look at the superintendent’s attack on tenure.
He seems to be claiming that we hire aides to work with one and only one child, and when that child “moves on” that the aide’s services are superfluous or as he claims “inefficient.” They are effectively left with nothing to do.
Sometimes, even after four years, I’m still astonished by the bullshit.
First, most aides do not work with a single child. Most work with many children, and they rotate between many children all day long. When the school year ends, those aides then work with a new batch of kids the following year.
It is extremely rare, if not unheard of, for an aide to only work with a single child during even a single semester. It is even more rare for that aide to follow the child to a new grade level the following year. Like general ed teachers, the kids move; the aides remain.
Are there exceptions to this pattern? Sure. But those are exceptions, not the rule.
But even if it were the rule that aides stayed with a single child for their entire educational experience (which would actually be fairly awesome if such a system existed), that aide would not then become useless. He or she could then be simply assigned to another child.
This isn’t difficult to understand. The problem is that Dr. Wardynski doesn’t wish to understand. He’s making a point, and the truth cannot be allowed to interfere with his point. Dr. Wardynski’s claim that an aide is simply a drain upon the system “once a child moves on” is laughably ridiculous.
HCS Aides Cost “About a Third” More (Spoiler: Nope)
Wardynski also claimed that HCS aides cost the district about “a third more” than the Appleton aides. Mr. Taylor, the CFSO who should know, agreed with Wardynski that they do, in fact, cost more.
So I decided to go look.
According to October 1, 2015 “Classified and Non-Instructional Certified Compensation Plan” page 17 seen above, the salary schedule for “Clerical Assistant and Instructional Assistant” ranges from $9.64/hour for an aide with no experience to a maximum of $12.81/hour for an aide with 18 years or more experience.
So assuming that all of the remaining 63 HCS aides have 18 years or more experience (they don’t, but let’s pretend), then we’re paying the remaining 63 aides $12.81/hour plus benefits.
Ah, those terrible benefits that cost the district so much and are so “inefficient” (cause by god, we want our aides working around our children when they have the flu). If only there were a way to avoid paying for those benefits like health care and retirement.
The average estimate that Dr. Wardynski offered for the cost analysis of the benefits package was “it adds about a third” to the cost of the employee. My school, which participates in the same benefits program as the HCS aides pays 31% for my benefits, but lets assume that Wardynski and Taylor are correct for a change and the benefits do cost 33%. What would the cost of the most experienced and expensive HCS aide be?
Benefits: $4.23/hour (at 33%)
Total: $17.03/hour (Salary and Benefits)
Dr. Wardynski claimed that this means that a Huntsville City Schools Aide costs “about a third more” than an Appleton aide.
This is not true.
Appleton special education aides are paid $15.00/hour for their services without benefits (such as sick leave). Thus with that comparison, an Appleton aide would cost about 12% less than a HCS aide with benefits.
However, that is simply the amount that Appleton pays to Appleton aides to do their work. It is not the total that HCS pays Appleton.
If you review the Bid# 15-045, Temporary Personnel bid that the board approved at their July 16, 2015 meeting, the actual amount that Huntsville City Schools pays to Appleton for a special education aide is $21.30/hour.
Thus, the total cost to the district for an Appleton special education aide is $21.30/hour, and the total cost for the most experienced and expensive HCS aide is $17.04/hour.
Dr. Wardynski and Mr. Taylor were at best incorrect when they claimed that the HCS aides cost the district “about a third more.” At worst, they were again refusing to allow the truth to stand in the way of the point that they wished to make.
In actuality, HCS aides cost 20% less than an Appleton aide.
Assuming that “efficiency” only refers to cost, it is approximately 20% more efficient for the district to hire their own aides than to pay Appleton’s Administrative staff to do so.
But the truth is that you cannot measure “efficiency” of an aide or a teacher based strictly on the cost of that aide or teacher. I’ve known excellent aides who were employees of Appleton, and I’ve known excellent aides who were HCS employees.
If Dr. Wardynski cared about education at all, he would realize, but he doesn’t. So he just focuses on the financial measurement instead, which is the easiest to understand and manipulate.
It’s an embarrassment that his statements about the finances are so misleading, and that no one on his staff feels free to correct him when he’s so clearly wrong.
Where are the SPED Teachers?
If you’re a close reader, you’ll notice that there’s a missing element from all of this discussion about how the district is “increasing services” for our special education students.
That’s right, where are the teachers?
In a 25 minute presentation/Q&A session that dealt with specific details concerning even how many students we have on the Autism Spectrum, there was not a single mention of the number of SPED teachers our district has.
Care to guess why?
Well, on August 6, 2015, two days after the start of the school year, Dr. Wardynski claimed that the district was still attempting to hire seven SPED teachers.
As of November 13, 2015 the district was still attempting to fill four SPED resource room vacancies. Finding special education teachers who wish to come here (and more importantly for their students, wish to stay) is nearly impossible.
Dr. Wardynski’s opinions about special education are well-known in the SPED community.
Maybe Ms. Sledge was hoping that if she didn’t mention teachers no one would ask about the SPED classrooms that didn’t have teachers four months into the school year.
And no one did.
SPED Federal Funding
Dr. Wardynski, Mr. Walker, Mr. Taylor, and Ms. Sledge continued their discussion about inefficiencies and federal limitations that tie their hands with the following discussion:
McGinnis: [To Sledge] Well if you’re running around gathering up data, could you give me an idea of what, I remember at one time, the percentage of money that the federal government gave to the states was somewhere around 44%. They never fully funded special ed.
McCaulley: It’s 17 now. [McCaulley offered no evidence for this. No one confirmed her claim.]
Wardynski: Jason probably has that, top of his head.
Taylor: It’s actually less than a third. That federal. Our federal IDEA money. IDEA specific money from the federal government is less than a third of the total required maintenance of effort level . . . [Federal Funding for IDEA in FY2016 for HCS is $4,715,695 according to Mr. Taylor’s Budget Hearing on September 3, 2015.]
McGinnis: So they have dropped their contribution?
Taylor: Consistently over the last five years. [Actually, in 2015 there was an increase of about $50,000 over 2014.]
Wardynski: Oh yeah.
McGinnis: So we’ve had to pick them up.
Wardynski: There’s members of the community who constantly slam Huntsville City Schools in the blogs and the web, who are just totally uninformed on this topic. While the federal government’s been cutting resources devoted to special ed, we’ve been back filling, and increasing local resources provided to special ed. That’s how we’re able to increase services and the quality of services. Uh, the rules for supporting special ed students have gone up, but the money has gone down by, since just you and I [looks at Taylor] have been here what, by about a third?
Taylor: Yes sir.
Dr. Wardynski claimed that federal IDEA Part-B funds (funds that the federal government provides to Huntsville City Schools to assist with the funding of special education) have been cut “by about a third” since he and Mr. Taylor “have been here.”
Dr. Wardynski was loving the “third” percentage at the last board meeting. It’s a shame that every time he brought it up, and had it confirmed by his chief financial officer that this number was completely wrong.
The details of the amount of Federal IDEA Part-B are presented in each budget hearing offered in early September before the start of the new fiscal year. Dr. Wardynski and Mr. Taylor have been offering these budget hearings since FY2012. Below is a list of the amount of funding that the district has received for IDEA Part-B (Special Education) in those five budget hearings:
So, they are correct that the amount of funding the district has received from the federal government has decreased. It hasn’t decreased every year, as Mr. Taylor claimed, but it has decreased.
However, if what Dr. Wardynski claimed “the money has gone down by, since just you and I [looks at Taylor] have been here what, by about a third?” were correct, then the 2016 IDEA revenue would be $3,362,583.27, not $4,714,695.00.
Federal Funding has decreased by 6%, not 33%.
Oh, and while it should be clear that Dr. Wardynski is the one who is “just totally uninformed,” the last time that the federal government changed or possibly increased the “rules for supporting special ed students” was 2004. Those rules for supporting special ed students have remained fairly consistent since that time.
Perhaps if Wardynski spent a bit more time listening to someone who doesn’t just say “Yes sir” to him every time he asks a question, he would be a bit more than “totally uninformed.”
Placing yourself in an echo chamber of “yes” men and women has consequences, Dr. Wardynski. A “strong leader” should have long ago become aware of that.
“Non-SPED Ed Students Will Be the ‘Bill-Payer’ for SPED”
If you haven’t watched the entire 24 minute discussion on the two YouTube links above, please take a few minutes to watch this one. I don’t want anyone to accuse me of misinterpreting Dr. Wardynski’s comments.
Here’s a transcript of this interaction between Mr. McGinnis, Dr. Wardynski, and Mr. Taylor. Ms. Sledge, who was the SPED representative in the meeting, and Ms. Ferrell, who proclaimed in the meeting that her child was identified as special needs by his general ed first grade teacher, both chose to remain silent during this exchange. Ms. McCaulley, Ms. Wilder, and Mr. Culbreath (as is his custom) also sat silently.
This exchange immediately followed Mr. Taylor’s confirmation that IDEA Part-B funding had been cut by a third over the past five years transcribed above.
McGinnis: How long do you think we can go on like that?
Wardynski: Uh. Well that’s a question of . . .
McGinnis: That’s a tough question, I know.
Wardynski: Yeah. This is, uh, this one . . . Educating these children is governed by federal law. Uh, there’s not federal law that governs the level of service that we have to provide to non-special ed services. Uh. To non-special ed students, so, uh.
Taylor: Trade offs.
Wardynski: Uh, it’s, the bill payer will be non-special ed students.
McGinnis: Yeah, I’d hate for us to have to cut the services.
Wardynski: Well, we can’t for special ed services. [In 2011, the district did cut special ed services and had to repay $2,571,450.64 in October 2012.]
McGinnis: Right. We’re kinda locked into it, and so it has to come from somewhere else.
Wardynski: Right. This is the problem of almost anytime you take federal money, whether it’s food or anything. There’s a real rigidity in the system. Thankfully we’re in Huntsville, and our city resources the school system well. Um, other systems aren’t that fortunate.
Wilder: The state provides money, um a flat rate. Right?
Wardynski: Five percent. They essentially assume that five percent of our students are special ed, and then they resource a very little bit of money for that five percent.
Ferrell: Ms. Sledge, you said you got 269 new referrals since the start of school year? And how many psychometrists do you have to process those children?
Sledge: We have five.
Ferrell: Five? Okay.
McCaulley: Board members, any more questions? Anyone from the audience? Okay.
On Thursday, November 5, 2015 at about 6:40pm, Dr. Wardynski decided it was time to, once again, use special ed kids as his own personal scapegoat for everything that is wrong in education today. And McGinnis and Taylor fully agreed and supported him in this argument.
Dr. Wardynski claimed that since of federal regulations prohibiting the district from doing what they did in 2011 (they cut Special Education to make up their budget short fall in 2011), that the “SPED bill” will have to be paid, and “the bill-payer will be non-special ed students.”
He is attempting (again) to turn the general public against special education students for his own political gain.
Dr. Wardynski has a history of attacking special education students when it suits his purposes.
Barely two months after he arrived on September 8, 2011, he attacked special education kids as costing the system too much money in an extended discussion with his then CSFO Frank Spinelli.
He did it again while discussing the departure of special education families from the district with one of the heroes of the special education community in our town, Debra Jenkins.
Ms. Jenkins wrote this in April 2014:
It’s my impression that Huntsville City School’s superintendent doesn’t look at children with special needs as anything but a number … and a problem.
I met him shortly after he moved to Huntsville and told him what I do. When I told him that I hated to hear that 10 of the families enrolled in my program had relocated to the city of Madison because they weren’t satisfied with Huntsville’s special education program, he said to me (paraphrased) … Good! Let Madison have them. Children with special needs are my worst nightmare. I never see their parents unless they are in my office, with an attorney, demanding something I don’t want to give them.
Dr. Wardynski sole interest in special education is how they might serve as a scapegoat for the educational problems he has created.
If you’ve read to the end of this long post, it really should come as no surprise to you that Dr. Wardynski has no idea what the hell he’s talking about. I’ve proven him wrong on nearly every significant point he raised about special education at that meeting.
And it should come to no surprise to you that he’s completely wrong about this as well.
8.9% of the Budget is Spent on at least 10% of the Students
Ms. Sledge repeatedly stated that the SPED student population amounted to 10% of the total student enrollment for the district. She posted this chart:
Thus, there are approximately 2,409 SPED students not including gifted students, which typically comprise an additional 5-7% of the district’s enrollment according to the Gifted Department.
Since these SPED students are being accused of harming the general ed students, I thought it might be interesting to see just how much of the budget the SPED budget accounts for.
Mr. Taylor was kind enough to provide me with the figures in a timely fashion. (He has not always chosen to do this in the past, and so I thank him for doing so on this occasion.)
The total Special Education budget (which does in fact include the Gifted Education budget as well) is $22,056,581.84 for FY2016.
Just in case you’re unaware, the total budget for HCS is $380,561,686.00 for FY2016. This includes the capital projects budget of $133,175,404.00 which come from a separate sandbox of funds and can only be used for capital projects.
Thus, the total budget, minus the capital projects for FY2016 is $247,386,282.00. Of that amount, the district is spending $22,056,581.84 on all Special Education (which includes Gifted education). This represents 8.9% of the total non-capital projects budget, which is being spent on at least 10% of the district’s population.
According to Dr. Wardynski, this is unacceptable and demonstrates that non-special ed students are being asked to be “the bill payers” for special education in this city.
Funny, Dr. Wardynski, it would appear that you are instead requiring special education students to fund the non-special education students’ education at a rate of at least 1.1% (and when we included gifted students into that number, that rate jumps to 6.1-8.1%).
It would seem that special education students are, in fact, “the bill payers” for non-special education, which is, unsurprisingly, the exact opposite of your claim on November 5th.
Not to worry, however. You see, we don’t actually begrudge our non-special ed friends/family their rights to an education as you do our rights to an education. We don’t actually see our non-special ed friends/family as a “problem.” We don’t want our non-special ed friends/family to have to move to Madison for their education. We would like them to stay right here.
Special ed students, in other words, aren’t the bullies here.
That would instead be you, Dr. Wardynski. That would be you, Mr. McGinnis. That would be you, Mr. Taylor. And sadly, that would also be Ms. Ferrell (who has a history of her own of scapegoating SPED kids when it suits her needs, despite her being a parent to one of our kids), and also Ms. Sledge for refusing to speak up to defend the rights of special education children access to public education. Ms. Sledge, your silence during this discussion on November 5th contradicts the core beliefs of your department. That would also be Ms. Wilder, Ms. McCaulley, and Mr. Culbreath. Bullies one and all.
qui tacet consentire videtu
“They’re Quite Aware of What They’re Going Through”
You know, my son has to deal with bullying occasionally. It thankfully hasn’t happened terribly often, but it has happened. When the bullying comes from a child, and it isn’t severe, I help my boy deal with it by talking to him about people who fear and attack what they don’t understand.
You see, my son does understand when people are being mean to him. He may not respond. He may simply walk away, but his silence should never be interpreted as a lack of comprehension.
When that bullying comes from adults, and especially adults who should know better, well that’s simply inexcusable.
Dr. Wardynski, you are an uninformed bully seeking to punish and scapegoat anyone who doesn’t simply say “yes sir” to you.
To you, in the name of my son who at 10 is ten times the man you could ever hope to be, I say, no sir.
No sir, you are not right about having made our district more “efficient.”
No sir, you are not right about having made our district a good place to seek employment.
No sir, you are not right about the IDEA 2004 law that protects my son from thieves and bullies like yourself who seek to steal his right to an education just because you don’t believe he should receive one.
No sir, you are not right about our kids causing our other kids to suffer.
No sir, you will not bully my son or the thousands like him who are pursuing their education in spite of the obstacles and hatred you’re putting in their way.
You’ve proven that you’re incapable of leading this district in an honest and open manner; you’ve demonstrated, repeatedly, that you do not care about kids and their education. It is time, therefore, for you to leave.
It’s time you stopped spitting on our kids.