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To provide better special education services, NOLA-PS eyes changes to funding formula

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NOLA-PS is trying to address the first problem by changing its funding formula to allocate more money to schools that serve special education students.

Multiple agenda items at Tuesday’s Orleans Parish School Board meeting addressed a persistent problem the district is facing: How to better serve special education students.

Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ public schools have faced scrutiny and increased oversight for failing to provide adequate services to eligible students.

Special education advocates argue the problem stems from lack of funding as well as oversight. Now, the district is trying to address the first problem by changing its funding formula to allocate more money to schools that serve special education students.

Stuart Gay, the district’s chief financial officer, presented the recommended changes to board members and said it had been developed with the support of finance and operations officers at 10 of the city’s charter management organizations.

The first recommendation suggests a one-time payment be made to fund stand-alone programs that serve the city’s highest-need students, and the second directs more money to students with special needs by requiring that all school funding flow through the same weighted formula.

Right now, the district’s deferred revenue as well as money from a special fund that typically provides an additional $100 per student, is awarded to students equally.

Nearly a dozen public comments were made in favor of the preliminary recommendations and there were none against.

“We reached a consensus on these recommendations because we believe they will maximize available funding to serve the students of Orleans Parish and equitably distribute that funding to support students based on individual needs,” said Crescent City Schools COO Christopher Hines.

The superintendent is responsible for establishing a funding formula, known as the District-Level Funding Allocation (DFLA), which allows the district to distribute state and local money to individual schools based on student needs.

In New Orleans, the amount of money a school receives is dependent on how many students they enroll as well as the characteristics of the individual students. Students that receive special education services, are English learners, were formerly incarcerated or are considered gifted and talented receive higher allocations under the formula.

Formula categories and weights will remain the same, Gay said, and most schools should expect to see a less than 5% funding impact per pupil. If approved, the new formula would be used to distribute funding beginning in the 2022-23 school year.

Because of New Orleans’ open enrollment system and selective admission schools, some charter operators have very few students in high-cost categories while others have relatively few. The DFLA can be adjusted once every two years, and the last time the board adjusted the policy was in 2017.

Under the current formula, 80% of funds are distributed on an equal per-pupil basis while the other 20% is provided to schools based on their specific number of students requiring higher-cost services.

While the recommendations received universal praise at Tuesday’s meeting, some advocates were careful to note that more still needs to be done to ensure money is available long-term for students with the most significant needs.

The proposed changes include a one-time payment of roughly $815,000 to fund the Travis Hill School, which serves incarcerated students, and the Center for Resilience, a therapeutic day program that serves the district’s highest need students.

The district normally receives funding for these programs from the city’s Harrah’s Fund, but the City Council decided to allocate the money differently this year. Because the district’s support for these programs comes in the form of a one-time payment, it’s unclear where future money will come from.

Additionally, the city’s specialized programs serve a relatively small number of students and some educators believe more seats are needed. The services these students require carry a high price tag and frequently exceed money allocated by the district’s formula.

“While I’m deeply in support of this, we have not yet solved for specialized programs for students with special needs,” FirstLine Schools CEO Sabrina Pence said. “There are students that will exceed the costs of the differentiated funding formula and we will need to figure out how we address that.”

Gay said he will incorporate the district’s latest enrollment projections into the preliminary recommendations and present final recommendations to Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. prior to the board’s January meeting. Lewis will then present his own DFLA recommendation to the board for approval.

In addition to improving funding, the district is also looking to improve special education services through improved coordination and oversight.

Shayla Guidry Hilaire, the district’s chief student and school support officer, said the district and more than a dozen of its charter operators have applied for grant funding from the state meant to “reimagine” educational opportunities and improve student access to high-quality schools.

If selected, the district will use its grant to support several system-wide initiatives, including developing systems to better support special education students. Guidry said one solution the district plans to consider is whether to form an independent education service agency (ESA), which could allow them to coordinate services across schools, providing greater oversight and potentially saving individual schools money.

More than 20 charter operators, representing 25,000 students, support the grant initiative, according to Guidry.

Tiffany Delcour, the district’s chief operations officer, provided a COVID-19 update at Tuesday's board meeting and said participation in the district’s COVID-19 testing program is at an all-time high, with more than 16,000 students and staff participating.

The district was monitoring 30 active cases of COVID-19 as of last Friday, according to the district’s tracker, which is updated every Monday. It’s a small increase from the week before, when 22 cases were reported, but resulting quarantine cases jumped more significantly from 94 to 263.

Schools are expected to provide additional testing opportunities at the end of the winter break, Delcour said. The district’s next COVID-19 update won’t be until Jan. 10 after students return from winter break.

Board members also discussed the superintendent search process with its firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates and urged the public to weigh in by visiting the district’s dedicated website.

Members said they are looking for a superintendent committed to bringing the city’s charter operators together to work collaboratively, but isn’t afraid to make unilateral decisions, enforce accountability and close schools when necessary.

Lewis is set to leave the position when his contract expires at the end of June 2022, and the board hopes to hire a new superintendent no later than April.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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