Trenton Schools: If We Build It They Will Come

The Fiscal Monitor appointed by the State to oversee Trenton Public Schools has proposed that the troubled district shut down Luis Munoz-Rivera Elementary School and convert it to “a home to special education students with behavioral disabilities,” according to the Trenton Times.

Here’s Mark Cowell, the Fiscal Monitor: "The child is assessed as special needs and sent out of the district. The problem is, the money goes with that child.” Last year Trenton Public Schools sent 558 kids to other programs and next year that will jump to 649, reports the Times. Cowell also suggested that other area school districts would send their behaviorally-challenged children to Luis Munoz-Rivera, thus providing much-needed revenue for Trenton’s bottom line.

Let’s unpack this a little bit. First, a closer look at Munoz-Rivera in its current incarnation as a regular ed elementary school. According to the DOE database, the 533-student preK-8 school struggles mightily to achieve student academic proficiency. Based on the standardized tests, 67.3% of 3d-graders failed the math portion of the ASK3 and 75.5% failed the language arts portion. Looking ahead, among 8th graders 89.9% failed the math portion and 56.5% failed language arts.

But Mr. Cowell’s motivation is not merely to shutter a chronically failing school in a city with dropping enrollment; in fact, student performance is not much worse there than in other K-8 schools in the district. (See Hedgepath Williams, for an example.)

Indeed, Trenton sends many students out of district at considerable expense. The number quoted in the Times piece – 558 – is a little deceptive because it includes kids who attend public charter and magnet regular-ed schools. According to Trenton’s budget data, while 475 students (out of a total enrollment of 11,510) are sent to “other districts,” 289 students are sent out of district to private special ed placements and another 39 are sent to other public districts. One-hundred fifty-one are in “state facilities” (Trenton bears the cost of the education component of their programs).

In all, Trenton pays $33,730,002 in out-of-district tuition, a whopping portion of its $238.4 million budget.

So it makes sense to keep as many kids in-district as possible, not merely from a fiscal standpoint, but also out of compliance with federal law that mandates that students with disabilities attend school in the “least restrictive environment.” And, apparently, the most efficient way to bring back some of that tuition money is to devote a whole building to a program for kids with behavioral challenges.

Question: is it statistically possible for a student body of 11,000 kids to include a cohort so clinically disabled by behavioral problems that they could fill up a school building? How carefully are these kids classified?

Second question: will other surrounding districts send their kids there, as predicted by Fiscal Monitor Cowell? Let’s try this scenario: a parent from one of the wealthy communities that border Trenton, like Princeton or West Windsor, has a kid with behavioral problems. The child study team says, “Why don’t we send your kid to Trenton?” Ri-ight. That’ll work.

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