Westport parents of special education students fear cuts to elementary administrators
Published 12:00 am, Friday, November 17, 2017
WESTPORT — Aurelio Almonte’s son is a third grader at Long Lots Elementary School and requires special education services. According to Almonte, his son has benefited greatly from Westport’s special education services.
“This area, Westport, has changed my son’s life. Before we got here, and we’ve been here for eight years now, my son was struggling. And he’s thriving here,” Almonte told the Board of Education at their Monday night regular meeting.
Unlike many other area districts, Westport enacted a special education model more than a decade ago featuring two assistant principals at each of the district’s elementary schools. At each school, one of those assistant principals oversees the education and other needs of his or her respective special education students.
According to parents like Almonte — several of whom also spoke at the meeting, and many more of whom were present in the crowd — the model allows for a more personalized approach, in which parents interact with an assistant principal more attuned to the needs of an individual student, rather than an off-site administrator.
But special education parents became fearful after Trumbull-based consultants Cooperative Educational Services (CES) were hired to examine the effectiveness and efficiencies of the district’s administrative structure. In response, members of the Westport Special Education Parent Teacher Association (SpEd PTA) sent a Nov. 6 email urging parents of special education students to attend the meeting to voice concerns over any potential changes that could eliminate assistant principals.
According to the email, “Prior to the reorganization that created these roles, the dynamic between SpEd families and Westport Public Schools was oftentimes contentious and litigation more frequent.”
However, Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer said that because of declining elementary school enrollment district-wide — down 300 students in the past 10 years, with an anticipated additional decrease of 150 students in the next five to six years — it is necessary to take a hard look at the way resources are allocated.
“As our elementary schools have contracted in size, we have appropriately reduced regular education teachers, paraprofessionals, and other related staff for fewer students in our classrooms, but we have not adjusted our administrative staffing for regular education support,” Palmer wrote in an email
“Over time, our regular education resources have decreased to match declining numbers, while our support for special education has tended to increase to match changing needs of these students,” she continued.
The cost of the assistant principals is not insignificant. Based on the current administrators’ contract, and assuming that each elementary school principal is at the lowest step in the district’s wage scale, the district’s 10 elementary assistant principals would earn $1.3 million in salary alone in 2017-2018. By 2019-2020, that number would rise to $1.4 million.
Additionally, each of the district's five elementary schools has been staffed equally, despite significant disparities in student population. Long Lots Elementary School, for example, is 45 percent larger by student population than Coleytown Elementary School, but both have the same number of administrators on staff.
“It is understandable that we would review this one-size fits all approach for staffing with the significant disparity in school sizes, especially as the enrollments of our elementary schools decline,” Palmer said.
As an example, Palmer said that preliminary feedback from the CES review suggested that more SpEd resources may need to be allocated to the high school to better aid that population.
She also stressed that the goal of any restructuring is not to cut costs or “to undermine our commitment to support our students with special needs.” Rather, the goal is to improve services and better serve all students in the district.
Still, for parents like Almonte and Denielle deWynter, who also spoke at the meeting and has a first grader at Long Lots that benefits from the district’s current special education resources, the potential for change is disconcerting.
“If the school proposes to downshift, per the email we received, we welcome very detailed explanations and a subsequent guarantee that this change won’t negatively affect our daughter,” deWynter told the board.
The Board of Education will next meet on Nov. 27.