Education

Parents to talk about possible $17M contract with special ed company. But jobs are already posted.

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.

On the same day as a public forum for a proposed special education program costing $17 million over three years, the Tennessee company in charge of the not-yet-approved program is hosting a job fair.

How to deal with Muscogee County’s growing population of special education students has been a topic of controversy. A proposed contract was nixed two years ago after an investigative report detailed alleged abuses by a Texas company’s employees. And a $25 million lawsuit has been filed against the school district by the mother of a 13-year-old allegedly injured by a contracted behavior specialist.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, parents and residents are invited to a forum to hear the proposal for a three-year contract with ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy and Education, a for-profit company based in Nashville that the Ledger-Enquirer first reported on in February. The school board is set to vote on the proposal on Monday, June 3.

Also at 6 p.m. Thursday is the end of a daylong ChanceLight “hiring event” that starts at 8 a.m. at the DoubleTree hotel, 5351 Sidney Simons Blvd. The event’s purpose is to interview candidates for the position of mental health therapist, says the notice posted on Indeed.com, with “Offers on the spot!”

On job-seeking websites Indeed.com, GlassDoor.com and SimplyHired.com, more than 10 positions to work for ChanceLight in Columbus were listed as of Tuesday afternoon, including program director, assistant program director, senior behavior analyst, behavior specialist, registered behavior technician, curriculum and instruction specialist, mental health therapist, IEP (individualized education program) compliance coordinator, special-education teacher, associate teacher, instructional aide and substitute teacher.

The Ledger-Enquirer sought explanations from ChanceLight and Muscogee County School District, as well as reaction from school board members.

Superintendent David Lewis said in an email Tuesday he and his staff were not aware of the advertisements, and reiterated that the contract must be approved by the school board.

“I do understand, however, from an HR perspective that if the contract is approved by the Board, ChanceLight wants to be proactive and prepared to start generating a pool of candidates in these fields that are some of the most difficult to hire.”

ChanceLight spokeswoman Cate Lewandowski said an email Tuesday that it’s standard practice to begin hiring as soon as there is a potential agreement. She said the company’s first priority is to find local candidates, but that the positions also are posted nationwide “as we don’t expect to be able to fill all 75 jobs locally.”

“It’s not possible to delay recruiting efforts until the final board vote because there are only about seven weeks to identify, screen and hire qualified candidates of the highest professionalism who will provide the best quality services to the district’s students.”

Lewandowski added, “The other company Muscogee vetted also currently has positions posted for the same program.”

More than 140 candidates nationwide have applied for those 75 ChanceLight jobs in Columbus, but nobody has been hired yet, Lewandowski said.

“We’d like to make a few contingent offers this week from current candidates and potentially from the job fair,” she said.

Those advertisements don’t mention the positions depend on the school board hiring ChanceLight.

“That information isn’t typically included in employment ads,” Lewandowski said. “We discuss this when we meet with candidates, and we make it clear that employment is contingent upon board approval of the ChanceLight contract.”

School board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 and vice chairwoman Laurie McRae of District 5 didn’t object to ChanceLight’s job postings.

“The BSP services that are being considered by MCSD has been an ongoing and transparent process for several months,” Green said in an email Tuesday. “Through this process, the Superintendent has regularly provided informational updates to the board and the public.”

McRae said in an email Tuesday, “School Board Members were very clear that before voting on the contract, they wanted more details about the services that would be provided by the company as well as the financial impact of the proposal. There was no reason for anyone to assume, then or now, this was a done deal.”

No other board members responded to the L-E’s query before this story’s deadline.

About the proposal

ChanceLight, which has been operating for 20 years, serves nearly 19,000 clients and students each year with nearly 3,000 employees at more than 150 locations in more than 20 states, generating approximately $134 million in annual revenue, according to its website.

Proposed for MCSD is what’s called the Behavior Supports Program. It would expand services for disabled children. Instead of educating special-needs students only in their self-contained classroom or in the GNETS (Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support) Woodall Program housed at Davis Elementary (for K-8) and Carver and Spencer high schools, MCSD would add three other options:

Interrelated Special Education, which provides targeted student and teacher support in a co-taught general education setting

Transitional Classroom, designed to integrate students back into a co-taught classroom

Therapeutic Day School, a separate facility for students who aren’t succeeding in the other options

This proposal comes two years after a split Muscogee County School Board rejected by a 4-5 vote the superintendent’s controversial recommendation to hire a different for-profit company to provide special-education services.

The proposed $5,670,000 annual contract with ChanceLight isn’t the all-encompassing plan for $6.4 million per year that was in the 2017 recommendation to hire Camelot Education of Austin, Texas. This new proposal covers only students with disabilities who exhibit extreme behavioral skill deficits. The students without a diagnosed disability but with severe discipline problems would remain in the AIM (Achievement, Integrity and Maturity) Alternative School at the Marshall Success Center.

Students in the Behavior Supports Program would have diagnoses that may include bipolar disorder, attention deficit, attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity, oppositional defiant disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder or reactive attachment disorder, or they may be victims of abuse or neglect.

During the summer of 2016, the Woodall Center, which served approximately 40 students with severe special needs, was among nine of 24 programs ordered by the Georgia Board of Education to be closed because they were unsafe and unhealthy.

Controversies

In a meeting Aug. 1, 2016, the MCSD board unanimously approved Lewis’ recommendation to comply with the state’s order and immediately move the students from Woodall to Davis.

On Sept. 12, 2016, a 13-year-old boy allegedly was body-slammed five times by a contracted behavior specialist at the alternative school for students with severe discipline violations. The student, Montravious Thomas, allegedly suffered injuries resulting in his right leg being amputated below the knee. A $25 million lawsuit filed by his mother is pending in Muscogee County State Court.

At a meeting March 16, 2017, Lewis presented his request to hire Camelot to run three alternative education programs. The plan called for closing the Edgewood Student Services Center, which housed the AIM program that Montravious attended, and reopen the vacant Marshall, a former middle school.

That center would have housed the AIM program, the Woodall program and a new program called Excel Academy, designed for over-age students in grades 6-12 who academically had fallen behind their peers.

But in a 4-5 vote May 15, 2017, the board rejected the Camelot proposal after residents had read a story titled “That Place Was Like a Prison” on the website Slate.com. The story reported allegations of Camelot employees abusing students with overly aggressive discipline in five other cities. Camelot has disputed the allegations.

Allegations against ChanceLight

ChanceLight also has disputed allegations against it.

The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, reported in January that two employees at the ChanceLight-owned Early Autism Project agreed to plead guilty to federal criminal charges stemming from a $12 million scheme to cheat government-backed insurers Medicaid and Tricare by inflating bills.

The newspaper reported ChanceLight said in a written statement, “We have completely reformed every policy and procedure to make sure this will not happen again.”

Mark Claypool, the founder and CEO of ChanceLight, told the Muscogee County School Board during its May 20 meeting that ChanceLight in 2012 bought the Early Autism Project, a healthcare business for preschool children with autism.

“Our company was never found guilty of anything, nor have we ever pled guilty to anything,” Claypool said. “. . . When we acquired this business, unbeknownst to us, it was under investigation for billing practices that occurred prior to our acquisition.

“We endured a three-year investigation — which was not any fun, I assure you — but at the end of that, we chose, just as a matter of strategy, honestly, to agree to a civil, no-fault settlement with the government to repay them, plus penalties, monies that they believe were overbilled, not because children didn’t receive services but because possibly the wrong billing codes were used in previous years.

“So this had nothing to do with behavior on the part of our company, and it has nothing to do with what we’re planning to do here in Muscogee County.”

Staffing plan

The proposed ChanceLight staffing plan for MCSD calls for:

1 program director

2 assistant directors

4 board-certified behavior analysts

1 curriculum and instructional specialist

1 education coordinator

15 teachers

As many as 2 classroom aides per classroom

As many as 9 behavior specialists

9 mental health therapists

1 school psychologist

2 administrative/office support positions

MCSD’s proposal to hire ChanceLight also comprises $170,200 in startup costs, including renovations at Marshall, and an additional $116,042 in unbudgeted staffing cost for a lead board-certified behavior analyst’s salary and benefits.

The school district already has Behavior Supports Program positions for 14 teachers ($919,968 in salaries and benefits), 20 paraprofessionals ($1,019,312), one program manager ($133,587) and two board-certified behavior analysts ($107,336).

The public forum starts at 6 p.m. in the Muscogee County Public Education Center’s boardroom, 2960 Macon Road.

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.
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