Source: Asbury Park Press -
When the Freehold Regional High School District cut back on the number of special-education students sent to out-of-district schools in the 2011-2012 school year, Schools Superintendent Charles Sampson was paid a $5,910 bonus on top of his $177,500 annual salary.
Educators in the school district say that 17 special-education students who otherwise would have been sent to schools out of their district benefited by staying close to home and attending Freehold Regional’s Workplace Training Program.
But critics say they fear that extra money in a superintendent’s pocket, and not the best interests of students, could influence the placement of youngsters in these situations.
Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande said it’s a bad idea to hold out a carrot to schools superintendents to induce them to cut the number of out-of-district, special-needs placements.
“I wouldn’t want my child’s placement to have anything to do with any financial incentive to an adult who is in charge of my child’s education,’’ Casagrande said.
Educating the more than 220,000 special-education youngsters in New Jersey is a huge expense, estimated by the New Jersey School Boards Association at more than $3.3 billion annually.
Almost 40 percent of the special-education cost is for tuition and transportation for the 12 percent of those students who are sent to programs outside their school districts, according to the school boards association and state enrollment figures. The vast majority of special-education students, slightly less than 200,000, are educated in their home districts, according to the state Department of Education.
In Middletown, $33 million is included for special education in the district’s $154.4 million budget, with costs increasing each of the last three years, said schools Business Administrator Amy Gallagher. The district has 1,597 special-needs youngsters enrolled and will spend $4.6 million on tuition and transportation to send 74 of them to out-of-district schools, she said.
The head of the district, Schools Superintendent William George, has been paid bonuses for reducing special-education costs: a payment of $899 for the 2011-2012 school year for reducing tuition costs for out-of-district placement of special-needs students, and $3,080 for the 2012-2013 school year for improving in-district special-education programs and services, according to Gallagher. The bonuses were on top of his $187,500 annual salary.
Casagrande, a Republican from Monmouth County, is the sponsor of a bill that would prohibit superintendents from being paid bonuses for reducing the number of out-of-district placements of special-needs students. The bill was passed unanimously by the Assembly in June. It now awaits action in the Senate Education Committee.
George declined an interview, but said in an email that there is no link between placement decisions and the performance goals built into his contract.
He said the goals were to improve in-district programs for special-needs students, as well as expand shared services with neighboring districts and countywide programs.
Freehold Regional’s chief academic officer, Nicole Hazel, defended the bonus practice in her district, saying Sampson was rewarded not for making decisions about the placement of students, but rather for helping to create programs to serve the pupils in the district.
Freehold Regional has a total of 1,918 special-education youngsters enrolled, including 179 who are sent to out-of-district schools, according to Renee A. Davis, director of special services for the district.
The Workforce Training Program, created under Sampson, benefited some special-education students who otherwise would have gone to out-of-district programs by combining a half-day of academic studies with part-time internships at area businesses that helped to ready them for the work force, Hazel said.
Sampson, who also declined an interview, said in an email that placement decisions are not made by him, but are made on an individual basis by a child-study team.
A survey by the Asbury Park Press of 15 of some of the largest of Monmouth and Ocean counties’ 86 school districts revealed only Middletown and Freehold Regional offered bonuses that were tied to bringing special-education students back into district programs.
But Casagrande said no school official should be swayed by financial incentives when it comes to decisions about where special-needs students will be educated.
Casagrande said the practice of school boards offering their superintendents bonuses for meeting various merit goals was an unintended consequence of a cap placed on the superintendents’ salaries in 2011.
“I certainly understand that school districts are looking for a way to reward excellence,’’ she said. “Some of the incentives that are out there are phenomenal. I just didn’t think this particular area was appropriate for awarding a bonus.’’
Two statewide organizations support Casagrande’s bill, the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform and ASAH, an organization formerly known as the Association of Schools and Agencies for the Handicapped, which is made up of 145 private, special-education facilities in New Jersey serving about 11,000 students.
Officials at Freehold Regional say cost doesn’t enter into the decision about where a special-needs youngster will be schooled.
“It’s all about the least restrictive environment and providing opportunities for students and servicing them as close to home as possible,’’ Freehold Regional’s Hazel said.
The district’s $183.9 million budget provides $12.1 million for special-education instruction. Figures from the state indicate Freehold Regional will spend another $13.5 million on tuition to send special-education students to schools outside of the district.