On Monday, the Madison School Board approved $100,000 to pay for a consultant to evaluate staffing needs for the Madison Metropolitan School District’s student services department, but some parents and teachers expressed concerns about the vendor’s outcomes in other districts.
Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that consults with urban school districts on human resource allocation, responded to MMSD’s request for proposals last November. The district wants help determining the appropriate staffing balance for its special education program and the Behavior Education Plan.
The consultant will advise the district on creating an “equity-based distribution model” for student services staff, evaluating staffing needs on an annual basis, and guidance on how to appropriately place special education and BEP staff when needs arise.
MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said a better staffing model for student services has been “the most recurring theme” she’s heard in her years of school site visits.
The Madison School Board split 4-3 on the issue. TJ Mertz, Anna Moffitt and Nicki Vander Meulen voted against the proposal, citing ERS' record in other school districts, language used by the vendor to discuss students with special needs, and the importance of using local expertise to evaluate MMSD’s student services department.
“(ERS has) no demonstrated expertise... when it comes to special education and assessing needs,” Mertz said. “I don’t see them as an organization with integrity. These are people I don’t want coming to my house.”
Cheatham acknowledged the expertise available both in the district and the community around staffing, but said an outside perspective is needed.
“We lack sufficient knowledge and skill... in how to create a more sensitive model in allocating positions,” Cheatham said. “I am asking the board to let us move forward with this work.”
Board members who supported the proposal deferred to the district to determine the best way to address staffing needs.
“We are hearing from our staff that they need help doing better. To turn a deaf ear towards that wouldn’t be doing our jobs,” Mary Burke said. “How many cases are there where needs aren’t being met that we just haven't heard about? I believe we need to give our administration the tools to at least learn and see if there are better ways.”
Parents and teachers from Madison School Community Alliance for Public Education showed up to the board meeting to express their concerns about ERS.
MMSD parent and former Madison School Board candidate Cris Carusi said ERS’ prior work around student-funding models was a reason for the board to vote against the contract.
“ERS has questionable expertise in special education and restorative justice, but they have ample expertise in student-based budgeting,” Carusi said. “This is a hallmark of corporate school reform and the school choice movement and it is not the right direction for MMSD.”
Joanne Juhnke is a parent of a student with special needs. She said the district’s talk about inclusive education environments for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) does not line up with an ERS contract.
“Given that we’ve got expertise right here in the district, I don’t see a need to spend our scarce dollars to bring in more out-of-state consultants,” Juhnke said. “Let’s listen to the folks on the ground who know what’s going on and start making the reality match the rhetoric.”
Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Lisa Kvistad said she was concerned about the “tone and language” used by the public in their assessment of the contract. She said MMSD is not “handing over the keys” to ERS to develop values or the approach to special education.
“We are not asking someone to tell us how to do special education,” Kvistad said. “We are asking someone to work with us around developing the data and the tools to help us give schools exactly what they need.”