MCSD special-education plan could include hiring outside contractor, email to board says

Teacher debunks special-education misconception

Gentian Elementary School special-education teacher Colleen Tighe is the Muscogee County School District's 2017 First-Year Teacher of the Year.
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Gentian Elementary School special-education teacher Colleen Tighe is the Muscogee County School District's 2017 First-Year Teacher of the Year.

When they presented the $5.5 million plan to improve special education in the Muscogee County School District, administration officials didn’t mention the possibility of hiring an outside contractor. Now, that is a possibility.

The proposal was presented to the board during its annual planning retreat Feb. 9. Based on that information, the plan calls for increasing the Behavior Supports Program’s staff and adding three programs, including a separate facility for a Therapeutic Day School. The estimated cost would add $3,967,463 to the annual budget, increasing the BSP’s staffing cost from $1,556,057 to $5,523,510.

None of that information included what superintendent David Lewis told the board in an email two weeks later. The Ledger-Enquirer obtained a copy of the email Tuesday night.

In that email, Lewis told the board Friday that a committee of “internal and external stakeholders” determined that MCSD doesn’t have “access to the specifically trained personnel needed to address the therapeutic needs of these students. Therefore, there is a need to consider a partnership with an educational partner that specializes in these services. As a result, I was asked to bring a recommendation to the board that would effectively address the gap in our continuum of services.”

In a 4-5 vote May 15, 2017, the board rejected Lewis’ recommendation to hire Texas-based Camelot Education for $6.4 million to run three alternative education programs. Now, MCSD is considering a scaled-down version that would serve only students with disabilities who exhibit extreme behavioral skill deficits; it won’t include the students with severe discipline problems (now educated in the AIM program at the Marshall Success Center) or over-age students, which the Camelot proposal did include.

Camelot Education president and CEO Todd Bock, after Tuesday's forum in the Muscogee County Public Education Center, responds to accusations that staff members have abused students while restraining them.

The two companies MCSD is considering for the plan’s therapeutic services are Tennessee-based ChanceLight and New Jersey-based Catapult Learning. MCSD already uses Catapult Learning’s subsidiary, Catapult Academy, for its dropout recovery program, also housed at Marshall.

Asked why the possibility of hiring an outside contractor wasn’t mentioned during the plan’s original presentation to the board, Lewis told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email Tuesday, “The presentation made during the Board retreat, on February 9, was intended to address the demonstrated and growing needs of our special needs students who need behavioral support. As mentioned in the presentation, the findings were representative of feedback provided by a stakeholders committee comprised of parents, teachers, school-based administrators, and District Special Education staff. Following the presentation, I was directed by the Board to explore all options, for addressing those needs, and bring forward a recommendation. Currently, we are in the process of identifying and exploring those options as directed.”

MCSD is preparing a March 3-7 trip for board and district officials to visit programs run by both companies.

“Our district is covering all travel expenses in order to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest,” Lewis told the board.

Asked who is going on the trip, where they are going and how much it would cost, Lewis said, “The arrangements for the proposed site visits have not been finalized.”

A Ledger-Enquirer reporter asked the board’s nine members for their opinion about the administration’s plan, the possibility of hiring an outside contractor and whether they would go on the March 3-7 trip. Six provided answers before deadline. Their opinions vary.

Board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 and at-large representative Kia Chambers wouldn’t say whether they would go on the trip. Vice chairwoman Laurie McRae of District 5, Vanessa Jackson of District 3 and Philip Schley of District 8 said they don’t plan to go. Mike Edmondson of District 2 said he isn’t sure whether he will attend.

As for the proposal, some board members expressed their opinion while others were noncommittal:

Green, who voted for hiring Camelot: “The Muscogee County School Board has made clear that to do nothing about the challenges facing our Behavior Support Program is not an option. . . . At this point the Administration is exploring options and opportunities to best support our most vulnerable population of students and their families.”

McRae, who voted for hiring Camelot: “These programs can best be evaluated by the professionals working in our school system. Should one of these programs be selected and recommended to the Board for implementation, then at that time I may schedule a visit.”

Chambers, who voted against hiring Camelot: “It has been noted over and over again that our Special Education Program is in desperate need of additional wrap around services to better serve our current student population. . . . As I have stated before, the most viable part of the program previously presented to the board was the Therapeutic Day School component. Realizing that some of our students have needs that expand beyond the classroom and beyond teachers’ training, wrap around services are a critical element in fully educating our student population.

“Whether outside contractors or full-time staff are better suited to fulfill this need can only be determined once all data is gathered, needs have been thoroughly assessed and alternative methods have been fully explored.”

Edmondson, who joined the board this year: “When I ran I repeatedly said I wanted our own program. . . . Teachers are leaving special education in greater numbers than are entering. While I want a home grown program we have to help these children. The mental health needs are tremendous. We must do something.

“I don’t like it truthfully when I would rather have our own people but if we can’t we would be morally derelict not to try other options if they are available and successful. We are talking about seriously impaired persons who need appropriate help sooner rather than later. I have looked at both online and do not have a solid opinion yet on the two programs.”

Jackson, who voted against hiring Camelot: “I strongly believe in our in-house staff’s abilities, experience, professionalism and compassion for our students needs. I will be open minded for hiring contractors if I think this would be best for our students success.

“I do not know a lot about ChanceLight or Catapult. To make the best decision I would need more information about both services. At this time, I’m not sure if this is what our District needs. Our Student health concerns is priority for each Board Member.”

Schley, who joined the board this year: “I depend on Dr. Lewis’ expertise. . . . I think people just need to be patient as the process works its way through.”

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.