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Study says Syracuse school district has high number of teaching assistants and special ed students

An analysis of Syracuse school district spending released Monday shows that the district identifies more special education students – 21 percent of its enrollment — and employs far more teaching assistants than districts used as benchmarks in the study.

The Syracuse district spends less on its central office administration than all but one of the five benchmark urban districts, according to the study done by Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit firm based in Boston.

Say Yes to Education hired Resource Strategies to conduct a year long analysis of the district’s spending and use of resources. The firm released its first findings Monday to a Say Yes community advisory group chaired by school board President Richard Strong, Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney.

The analysis did not say the high special education or teaching assistant numbers are necessarily bad. They should be discussed, said Stephen Frank of Education Resource Strategies. The study goals are to determine if the district is efficient and to recommend long term strategies, Frank said.

The report will be followed up by a deeper look at some of the initial findings, Say President Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey said.

Say Yes to Education is an education foundation working with the district and Syracuse University to transform the city schools into a national model for urban reform. The goal is for 100 percent of Syracuse students to go on to college or some form of higher education.

Say Yes is putting millions of dollars into the effort, but the plan is for the district to gradually assume the full cost of the Say Yes school-based program, projected at $3,500 per student, by 2013-2014.

The Education Resource Strategies analysis aims to help the district find ways to better allocate its money, to allocate more of it to Say Yes and to provide its students a better education, Strong told the advisory committee.

Syracuse Teachers Association President Kevin Ahern said the Education Resource Strategies information is valuable but raises questions that need to be answered. The association represents teaching assistants. Say Yes’s commitment to a transparent examination of district resources is good for everybody, Ahern said.

“And I’m not sure that could have been accomplished with anything other than an outside, neutral party coming in to show what the numbers are,” he said.

The district’s 21 percent of special education students tops all five of the benchmark districts, including Rochester, which had 19 percent. The other districts were Washington, D.C. at 17 percent, St. Paul, Minn., at 16 percent; Atlanta, Ga. At 11 percent, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., at 9 percent.

Special education students cost more to educate, and the extra state money the district receives to do that does not cover the entire cost, Superintendent Daniel Lowengard said. The district has been looking at ways to reduce the number of students identified as special education, for instance by working to establish a centralized and more consistent identification process, he said. A reasonable goal for an urban district is 17 percent special education enrollment, he said.

“That would be a goal over time with the understanding that kids’ needs come first,” Lowengard said.

The study found that Syracuse has more than two times as many teaching assistants per pupil than Rochester and than the average of Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and St. Paul.

The district has been cutting the number of teaching assistants and plans to cut more next year, Lowengard said. The number of assistants is tied in part to the number of special ed students and to the inclusion of special ed students in typical classrooms. The district remains committed to inclusion, Lowengard said.

The study found that the Syracuse district spends 7 percent of its budget on central administration, compared with 9.5 percent in Rochester and the 9.5 percent average of the other four benchmark districts.


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