Education

MCSD board votes on $17 million contract for new special-education options

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The Muscogee County Board of Education is the elected governing body of the Muscogee County School District. The school board consists of nine members. Eight of the members are elected from districts. One is elected at large.
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The Muscogee County Board of Education is the elected governing body of the Muscogee County School District. The school board consists of nine members. Eight of the members are elected from districts. One is elected at large.

Two years after a split Muscogee County School Board rejected the superintendent’s controversial recommendation to hire a for-profit company to provide special-education services, the board has approved a less-extensive contract with a different for-profit company to address the same persistent problem.

During a called meeting Monday evening, the board voted 8-0-1 in favor of spending $17 million over three years for a continuum of services provided by ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy and Education of Nashville, Tennessee, a proposal the Ledger-Enquirer first reported on in February.

District 3 representative Vanessa Jackson abstained, so the approval wasn’t unanimous, but the contrast still was stark.

Jackson, countywide representative Kia Chambers, John Thomas, of District 2, Mark Cantrell, of District 6, and Frank Myers, of District 8, voted against Superintendent David Lewis’ 2017 recommendation to hire Camelot Education of Austin, Texas, for $6.4 million per year.

In the 2018 school board elections, Philip Schley ousted Myers, and Mike Edmondson replaced Thomas, who didn’t run for re-election. They joined Pat Hugley Green, of District 1, Naomi Buckner, of District 4, Laurie McRae,, of District 5, and Cathy Williams, of District 7, in voting for the contract with ChanceLight of $5,670,000 per year for three years.

And changing their votes from no in 2017 to yes now were Chambers and Cantrell.

Chambers praised the administration for bringing the board a different option.

“This is a collaboration,” said Chambers, a former teacher. “Our Muscogee County School District teachers are still involved in educating our students, and then ChanceLight comes in and provides a wraparound service. Teachers are trained to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, and when it gets over that boundary into mental health issues and issues that deal with behavior, those things aren’t taught in the teacher program, when teachers are going through school.

“It sounds like a great program for our students, that they’ll be able to get the services that they need, and also the teachers will have a partnership with a company that they can call on.”

Cantrell said he saw “too many red flags” about Camelot, which has denied allegations of abuse of students by employees. Calls from teachers and principals helped change his mind about ChanceLight, he said. They told him, “We really need this support,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell noted he hasn’t seen or heard “any bad things” about ChanceLight in its 20 years of business. “You have a trust factor right there,” he said.

But he did ask about the case of a ChanceLight-owned company, the Early Autism Project, which agreed in January 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 Ledger-Enquirer previously reported that Mark Claypool, the founder and CEO of ChanceLight, said ChanceLight in 2012 bought the Early Autism Project, a health-care 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.”

Brooks Keisler, ChanceLight vice president for business development, told the board Monday, “We did our due diligence. It was something that came out after the fact.”

Explaining why she would abstain from the vote, Jackson said, “Our students are suffering, not just our special-ed students but all of our students. I know our teachers and the principals, they’re struggling too. … I just feel like if ChanceLight can recruit advanced (special) education teachers, then we can do it as well.”

After the meeting, Lewis told the Ledger-Enquirer, “I’m very pleased. On behalf of all of our parents, students and teacher who are going to be the beneficiaries of this program, we are very excited about the potential it holds for all of the students, directly or indirectly.”

Alluding to his administration persevering after the rejected Camelot proposal, Lewis added, “This is the culmination of about three years worth of research and planning, so to get something that will be beneficial for all of our students, it’s very rewarding.”

Background

MCSD has 51 of its approximately 250 special-education teaching positions vacant, said Kathy Tessin, the district’s human resources chief. ChanceLight specializes in recruiting such educators.

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 about $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. MCSD would add three other options instead of only educating special-needs students in their self-contained classrooms or in the GNETS, the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support programs, the Woodall Program housed at Davis Elementary (for kindergarten-eighth grade) and Carver and Spencer high schools. These are:

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

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. 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 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.

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.

Staffing plan

The proposed ChanceLight staffing plan for MCSD calls for:

One program director

Two assistant directors

Four board-certified behavior analysts

One curriculum and instructional specialist

One education coordinator

15 teachers

As many as two classroom aides per classroom

As many as nine behavior specialists

Nine mental health therapists

One school psychologist

Two 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).

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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