February 1, 2010

Formulas, Formulas....funding, weighing and otherwise

Marc Comtois

I was surprised to learn that Warwick is alone in "weighing" its students based on whether or not they have an IEP (Individual Education Plan). It goes like this: kid with normal educational needs = 1; kid with IEP = 1.5 (and sometimes 2). So, as the Warwick Beacon reported last week, "there are 10,482 students enrolled in Warwick schools. Or are there 11,582 students?" Obviously, with a cap on class size of 28, this can affect how many teachers can be hired. To use an extreme example, If there are 28 IEPs, that really means there are 56 kids, and thus two teachers are required.

[T]he school administration is looking at all ways it can save. Increasing class sizes by eliminating weighting isn’t likely to occur until after the teacher contract expires in August of 2012, if then. Nonetheless, the weighting system that is unique to Warwick is being considered. It’s not the first time.

For as long as school human recourses and counsel Rosemary Healey can remember, elimination of weighing has been on the list of School Committee demands at the opening of contract negotiations. That demand has always been dropped for some other concession.

She said the weighing system was introduced in the 1980s and has been a part of the teachers contract ever since.

How expensive is it?
No one has figured out the precise cost of weighting students, but it is estimated to have resulted in the hiring of an additional 110 teachers. Each teacher is estimated to cost the department $100,000 based on salary and benefits. That’s an annual cost of $11 million.
According to Richard D’Agostino of the Warwick School Department, 20% of Warwick students have IEPs. And that's down a few percentage points since Warwick instituted a more comprehensive screening process! I don't doubt that there are legitimate benefits to IEPs for those who truly need them, but I don't like the way this emotionally-loaded "bargaining chip" is being played.
Teachers Union President Jim Ginolfi likewise acknowledges the prevision may be unique to Warwick, but also in part credits it for making the system outstanding.

“I think Warwick is in the forefront. Warwick has always been in the forefront with special education students”, he said. Elimination of weighting would not correlate into a reduction of costs since the district would still be obligated to meet the requirements of those students with an IEP, says Ginolfi.

“They’re going to need more time to devote to those students”, he reasons....Ginolfi argues that there is flexibility with weighing.

He observes the district has options. It can put all special education students in a single class; it can move IEP students into resource classrooms for special instruction, and it can introduce special education teachers into classrooms where there is a mix of IEP and regular students.

Until they enter negotiations Ginolfi can’t say whether weighing is one of those issues the union would hold out for. As for trimming costs, Ginolfi offered no suggestions.

“Education is expensive”, he said, “and that is why we need a (funding) formula at the state level.”

Ginolfi's "options" are calculated to be unappealing to parents of kids with IEP's, who (understandably) won't be happy about what sounds like "warehousing." But that will all have to wait, because the real unionist solution boils down to: "Sorry, can't help ya...let's wait for contract negotiations or a funding formula."