PORTLAND – Consultants who recently reviewed special education in the city’s public schools defended their findings Wednesday, saying their report was based on data provided by the district.

The information was sometimes lacking or conflicting, they said, and required them to check some numbers several times. But it didn’t undermine their conclusion that Portland could save $2.5 million a year on special education by restructuring administration, reducing staff and adjusting programs to improve instruction.

”It is 100 percent accurate, based on the data you gave me,” said Jerry Brodsky, head of American Educational Consultants of Beachwood, Ohio. ”There’s a lot of area for cost-saving here that will actually improve instruction.”

Brodsky and Fotini Eberhard, two of three consultants who worked on the report, delivered their presentation during a School Committee meeting at Portland Arts and Technology High School.

The audience was packed with more than 60 special education teachers and parents. Many were visibly agitated by the scrutiny and controversy stirred by the report, which was released Jan. 29.

”It’s garbage,” Bill Spear, a parent of a special education student at Hall Elementary School, said after the presentation. ”It does bring issues to the fore for discussion, but the errors and inconsistencies make me question its overall conclusions.”

Superintendent Jim Morse commissioned the $40,000 cost-benefit analysis in part because the district’s $16 million special-education program got a negative review from the Maine Department of Education in January 2009. The program serves 1,300 Portland students.

District leaders are seeking ways to improve student success and reduce costs under the threat of a $6 million reduction in state and federal funding in the coming school year.

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said the consultants’ report is one of many pieces of information that will be used to make decisions about Portland’s special education program in the future.

The report calls for the program to reorganize administration, eliminate as many as 40 of 239 teaching positions and implement a centralized intervention program representing current best practices.

Brodsky said the consultants based their recommendations on the district’s data and anecdotal evidence gathered when they visited five of Portland’s 18 school buildings in December.

He said one teacher’s aide was assigned to ride a school bus, apparently to help a special education student who no longer rode the bus.

”You are overstaffed,” Brodsky said. ”Some (people) are in positions because that’s the way it’s always been.”

The report is highly critical of Barbara Dee, the district’s special education director for nine years, saying that her inefficient leadership ”results in higher than necessary costs and lower than expected benefits with respect to student instruction.”

The report describes Dee as shirking responsibilities and blaming buildings for failing to implement best practices, among other things.

Teachers and parents gathered outside Wednesday’s meeting applauded Marjorie Mehler, a special education learning strategist, when she blasted the report’s personal attack on Dee.

”The question that needs to be asked is whether there was a hidden agenda in this report, whether it was a character assassination,” Mehler said. ”It was posted on the district’s Web site before she was given a chance to even read it. Public humiliation like this shouldn’t be encouraged. It’s appalling and it’s unethical.”

Neither Dee nor Morse would comment on the report’s criticism of Dee, but both said they would work to implement its recommendations.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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