By NICK GRABBE
Friday, April 30, 2010
AMHERST - A survey of parents with children in special education programs has come under fire as the school district nears the end of an evaluation of their cost and effectiveness.
Amherst's K-12 special education programs will cost almost $10 million this year, or 20.1 percent of total school spending. In fiscal 2008, they cost about $8.75 million, or 18.7 percent of spending, according to budget documents provided by Finance Director Rob Detweiler.
The school district hired the Public Consulting Group of Portsmouth, N.H., to do an evaluation, and a report is scheduled to be presented to the School Committee in June. The firm has been reviewing student achievement, observing classes, doing interviews and conducting an anonymous survey of parents and guardians.
At the April 13 School Committee meeting, parent Michael Aronson compared this survey to the 1986 space shuttle disaster. He said it was biased and should be discarded and restarted. "Garbage in, garbage out," he said.
More than 300 parent surveys have been received, a participation level that exceeded expectations, said Jo Ann Smith, interim director of special education.
After speaking with the consulting firm, she said the evaluation should move forward using the data obtained in the survey.
Later, Aronson said the school district is "aggressively seeking out the answers they want." The survey mostly lumps administrators and teachers together, so parents can't determine from where the comments are coming, he said. He said the survey did not seek comments about legal activities and questioned the survey's confidentiality and the security of its online component.
Aronson said some of the surveys didn't include open-ended questions that allow more general comments. A new survey should be undertaken, with parents involved in its design, he said.
"Decisions made from this data will be made in ignorance and could very well compound the problems of our flawed system," he said.
Smith said the open-ended questions were included in the survey's development, but were not included when the firm went to press and posted it online. But within 24 hours the mistake was spotted, and the questions were added online and a second mailing was made, she said.
The paper survey's directions asked parents to return them to the Student Services office or to drop-off boxes in the schools, Smith said. The surveys were designed to be anonymous, but after concerns from parents about direct submission to the district, they were provided with the mailing address of the firm, she said.
Smith has offered to conduct a parents' focus group to get additional comments, she said.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.