Accelify Blog

Trenton Special-Ed Funding Target of State Monitor (NJ)

May 18, 2010

A state fiscal monitor who has veto control over school board expenditures said he is targeting special education spending as the district struggles with state aid cuts and prepares to lay off hundreds of employees.

The monitor, Mark Cowell, explained that the state ordered Trenton to hire him in March after an audit found a $1.9 million deficit. Last summer the district received bills for out-of-district special education programs it did not know students were attending, he said.

"All these bills showed up that nobody knew about," Cowell told the school board last night. "That was the Achilles’ heel that triggered me coming to the district."

Cowell, who will be in Trenton for two years, said he is hiring a consultant at district expense to evaluate out-of-district placements. Another consultant will evaluate procedures used by Trenton’s child study teams, who create special education students’ learning plans.

&quot ;Their record keeping is not too good," said Cowell, who is designing a new, centralized records system for the teams.

Board member Harry Luna said the district should keep its special education students in-house to save on annual outside school costs that can reach $50,000 or more per student, but Cowell said bringing them all back is not feasible.

The district’s effort to cut special education funding have become more urgent since the state announced a $12.5 million cut in Trenton’s formula aid earlier this year. Its 2010-2011 budget is $278.5 million, a reduction of $14.5 million.

Superintendent Rodney Lofton has announced plans to lay off 215 employees, though the number will be reduced thanks to 49 planned retirements and other adjustments, officials said yesterday. A new layoff total was not available last night.

Recalling last year, when an initial layoff of 420 people was reduced to 284, including 168 cafeteria workers whose positions were privatized, Trenton Education Association President Joseph Santo urged the administration to avoid laying off teachers whose jobs will likely be restored in the fall.

This year the district is considering privatizing its security force, and yesterday the guards staged their second sickout since the proposal was announced. Lofton said only six of 85 guards came to work districtwide.

With the guards absent, police who normally work in the schools were joined by members of the police department’s Youth Section along with other available officers, said Sgt. Pedro Medina, a police spokesman

Lofton said no decision has been made whether to hire a private contractor to provide security, and noted that he had visited the schools an d seen which guards were absent. He compared yesterday’s action to the events that preceded the privatization of the school cafeterias last year.

"One thing I can say is, they showed up to work every day," he said of the cafeteria workers. The sickout is "not hurting me. It’s hurting the kids."

The board also heard last night from Mark Valli, the president of NJAfter3, which began running the district’s after-school programs this year. He said the YMCA and other providers his organization oversees had served 2,200 student this year at a cost of $1.4 million.

The district spent about $600,000, NJAfter3 provided about $500,000, and the rest came from donor companies and organizations, Valli said. However, the organization’s state funding was halved earlier this year and its future is unclear.

Valli said he is expecting some continued state funding and is applying for federal grants. He proposed a scaled-down program for next year that would serve an average of 100 students per school and cost the district $400,000.