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Report suggests slashing $2.5M from Portland special education budget

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Report suggests slashing $2.5M from Portland special education budget

PORTLAND — A new report on special education in city schools says the district could save $2.5 million a year through programming changes, staff reductions and reorganizing the administration. 

The report, released on Jan. 28, is also critical of the "site-based" management of the special education program, where building administrators set their own policies, rather than subscribing to a district-wide policy.

The report lays much of the blame for system inefficiencies waste on Barbara Dee, School Department director of student services.

Superintendent of Schools James Morse Sr. called for a review of Portland's $14.1 million special education program, which employs 140 people, shortly after he was hired last July.

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said the report will give Morse a framework with which to begin streamlining the special education program.

Eglinton cautioned, though, that the School Committee may not implement all of the recommendations in the report.

"It's a resource; it does not represent a final decision," Eglinton said. "It would be a mistake for people to think the report will be implemented exactly as it's drafted."

The report was prepared by American Educational Consultants. The Ohio-based firm conducted site visits on Dec. 3-4, 2009, and held follow-up interviews on Dec. 18. A preliminary report was released to school officials on Jan. 14. 

AEC outlined a plan to remove 39 special education positions from the budget, which would save the district $1.7 million, and was critical of those in "key leadership positions," including Dee.

AEC said the director often provided voluminous information about irrelevant issues, but no information about more substantial concerns, like statistics about economically disadvantaged students. The director also reportedly claimed that intervention programs were outside her jurisdiction.

The report also said staff members expressed frustrations consistent with "what one sees just before quality staff seek and find other positions in other school districts and leave mediocrity behind for someone else to deal with."

The report said "sometimes a school district has to take action to remove mediocre staff from important leadership or classroom positions in order to keep quality leaders and classroom staff in place."

It suggested eliminating the director's position and replacing her with two to four supervisors who report directly to the superintendent.

Eglinton would not comment on specific findings regarding the director, but said he and other School Committee members expect Morse to be clear about his employees' responsibility and hold them accountable for their performance.

"It's not surprising the director received special attention," he said.

The report also criticized Portland's traditional site-based management, where staff identify themselves with their building, rather than the district. It suggested centralizing the special education administration and creating a central enrollment center under the direct supervision of the superintendent.

Reducing the number of out-of-district service providers and other staff reductions would save between $600,000 and nearly $1 million, the report said.

The report also recommends the district provide better professional development opportunities to the remaining special education staff and develop a three- to five-year strategic plan to implement the recommended changes.

Eglinton said the School Committee will meet with representatives from AEC on Feb. 24 to go over the report. Then, it will be up to Morse to decide which changes to implement, if any.

Eglinton said he and other School Committee members have encouraged Morse to use independent consultants to review other school programs.

"We encourage him to think outside the box and not to think everything needs to be researched by his staff," Eglinton said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net