The high price of educating high-needs students

Taxpayers foot bills, but what are they paying for?
AdvoServ's main facility sits on Kirkwood St. Georges Road in Bear. BY MELISSA STEELE
August 16, 2013

Taxpayers, school districts, the Department of Education and other state departments quietly spend millions of dollars every year to educate special needs students placed in full-time residential care facilities.

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For these students – referred to as "high behavior" by school officials who say they cannot be educated in a regular classroom – individual tuitions can rise into the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. The placement for one high behavior student costs Delaware taxpayers nearly $500,000 a year.

While all children are entitled by law to a free and appropriate public education, the high cost of residential care raises questions. What services are special needs children receiving in return for tuition costs? Who evaluates the cost of services, and who determines whether the services are effective?

Months of effort to uncover answers to these questions have failed to produce any understanding of these costs. Repeated efforts to access facilities that accept taxpayer money or obtain information about services students receive have been met with refusals on grounds that providing this information would violate student privacy.

There is very little oversight of special education dollars – not even school board members or district officials know what services children actually receive.

A yearlong effort to track down a bill for student services has proven fruitless.

Cape Henlopen Superintendent Robert Fulton and others said districts do not receive an itemized bill; the district simply pays an amount the Delaware Department of Education says the district owes. State education officials, on the other hand, said they receive no itemized bill, and that the districts have contracts with specific costs. The responses beg a final question: Does anyone know how the money is spent?

Last summer, Cape Henlopen School District Board of Education members began questioning overall special education costs in the school district. At the August 2012 school board meeting, district officials gave a thorough presentation on the high costs associated with placing some students in full-time residential care.

"There should be a limitation for what taxpayers should have to pay," said board member Sandi Minard, after reviewing tuition for two students who attend residential facility AdvoServ at a district cost of $68,000 each. "What is our obligation? Our obligation is not to provide full-time care for these kids."

A question of privacy

The Cape Gazette followed up the August 2012 school board meeting with Freedom of Information Act requests and questions to several state agencies requesting detailed costs and information on residential care.

Asked for the number of students and costs to attend each residential facility, the Delaware Department of Education cited student privacy issues under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and refused to release information. Data that would identify a specific student cannot be released, said Alison May, spokeswoman for the Delaware Department of Education.

For this reason, May said, DOE does not release information on groups of students less than 15 – a number set by the U.S. Department of Education.

Richard Morse, legal director for the Delaware American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said the ACLU has run into similar privacy roadblocks when requesting information from the Delaware Department of Education. He said he understands student privacy protections under FERPA; however, that does not mean an agency may withhold information just because the information relates to a student.

"According to the federal government office responsible for administering FERPA, 'the standard is, can a reasonable person in the school community – someone without personal knowledge of the circumstances – identify the student,'" Morse said. "The state Department of Education may withhold information you seek under FOIA only to the extent necessary to prevent someone without personal knowledge of the circumstances from being able to identify the student."

In 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in on the public's right to know vs. privacy under the act. He said proposed regulations would give states the flexibility to share data to ensure that taxpayer funds are invested wisely in effective programs, as well as increase accountability for institutions that handle federally protected records.

"Data should only be shared with the right people for the right reasons. We need common-sense rules that strengthen privacy protections and allow for meaningful uses of data," he said in a press release.

Still, the Delaware Department of Education refuses to release a list of specific services provided to high needs students or the cost of those services or programs.

What are the costs?

After months of requests, the department released student enrollment and costs for only one residential facility – AdvoServ, a residential facility in Bear that serves 17 Delaware students placed by the Delaware Department of Education.

Other than information on AdvoServ, May agreed to release only the total amount of taxpayer money spent on all residential facilities and the total number of students who attend them, again citing the need to protect student privacy.

Delaware's Department of Education spent $7.6 million last school year to send 33 special needs students to residential facilities throughout the region – an average of more than $230,000 per year per student.

Tuitions paid by school districts and the state together – all taxpayer dollars – range from $88,000 to $441,000 a year, May said. Generally, she said, districts pay 30 percent of total tuition; DOE pays the remaining 70 percent.

Facilities include Benedictine in Ridgely, Md.; Woods, Devereux and Melmark in Pennsylvania; and the Sterk School for the Deaf in Newark. Tuition for Woods and Benedictine were in the $60,000 per year range, according to costs provided by individual school districts for their share – tuitions comparable to the $68,000 charge per student Cape spends at AdvoServ. Sterk tuition averaged about $30,000 per year.

A DOE report on residential placements released in February noted 2012 costs for Melmark at $318,000, Devereux – a day school – at $162,000 and Benedictine at $81,000.

The report also said the costs represent basic tuition and do not include transportation or "enhanced individual supports that some students with severe behaviors require in their private program."

Even though Delaware Department of Education officials denied a request for a breakdown of the cost and number of students who attend each residential facility, some individual districts readily provided the information.

Last school year, Indian River School District sent 10 students to residential facilities. One went to AdvoServ for about $154,000 a year – the district's projected 30 percent share of the total, according to information provided by Belinda L. Waples, director of special services.

"We aim a little high to make sure we have enough money to cover it," she said.

Waples said DOE bills the district monthly; the district does not see the final bill, and she does not know the total.

However, based on the 30/70 split to calculate costs, the total cost could approach $500,000.

In Cape Henlopen School District, the district spent more than $150,000 a year to send three students to AdvoServ. Total tuition paid for each of two students – including district and state share – was $228,000. The third student's total tuition exceeded $60,000 a year.

Tuition costs for such private placements stand in contrast to Delaware's average cost per student: $11,300 per year based on 2010-11 statistics. The amount rises to $12,000 annually for Sussex County students.

Or, to put tuition costs into another perspective, undergraduate tuition, room and board at Harvard University for one school year is $56,407; Princeton is $56,750; and St. Andrew's, a boarding school in Delaware, is $51,500. Residential placement for high needs special education students is nearly three times the cost of some of the nation's most prestigious schools.

"Once we start paying for excessive things, that's where our concern is," Minard said. "Throwing money at the problem isn't always the answer."

AdvoServ serves ‘high needs’ population

AdvoServ describes itself in a brochure as a program aimed at providing services "to individuals whose challenges have defied all previous attempts at treatment." Referred to as the Summit Academy, the Bear facility is described as an historic country manor house renovated into a modern school, near the "rolling horse country of Delaware and along the Maryland border."

These prestigious locations come at eyebrow-raising prices.

Annually, Cape Henlopen School District pays more than $68,000 apiece – the district's 30 percent share of the total cost – to send two students to AdvoServ, according to a report on special education costs released by the school district in August 2012. The third student costs the district about $18,000 a year.

Director of Special Education Laura Manges in neighboring Milford School District said AdvoServ costs increase every year. Milford sent two students to AdvoServ last school year for a total district cost of $150,000, she said.

AdvoServ operates 60 facilities across Delaware, New Jersey and Florida – 13 in Delaware including the academy and several group homes.

In Delaware alone, AdvoServ serves 17 Delaware students and receives more than $300,000 a month in tuition costs from both school districts and the state. That's about $4 million a year in Delaware taxpayer money paid to AdvoServ for 17 students.

Robert J. Bacon Jr., chief operating officer for AdvoServ, refused to explain services provided to students for the tuition paid.

"It is not our policy to discuss information of this type, except with those agencies with whom we contract," he wrote in an email.

He said AdvoServ "provides expert clinical services to individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities and significant behavior challenges." He also recommended a video to watch on AdvoServ's website,

Cape Henlopen School District receives a bill for residential services from the Delaware Department of Education, Cape's Fulton said. The district pays the total in full; it does not receive an itemized account of services the student receives, he said.

GI Partners, a private equity firm based in Menlo Park, Calif., is listed as AdvoServ's lead investor on GI Partners' website. GI Partners did not return calls seeking comment.

'Needs of student need to be addressed first'

Proponents of residential placement for some special needs students say high costs are justified.

Jeff Conrad, supervisor of Instructional Support and Special Programs for Cape Henlopen School District, said Cape sends only one or two students a year to AdvoServ.

"We certainly place very few students in residential facilities," he said.

A check with several downstate schools showed over the past year Cape sends fewer students than Indian River and Capital school districts and about the same as Caesar Rodney, Milford and Smyrna.

Conrad described the type of student who needs full-time residential care as one with "high" behavior; students who have low cognitive skills who might cause a significant risk to themselves or others and are in need of constant monitoring, he said.

He said the decision to send a student to AdvoServ does not come lightly. A parent or surrogate works with a district team to decide if residential placement is needed.

"Quite often the request comes initially from the parent to place a child there," he said.

Linda Smith, coordinator for the Intra-Agency Collaborative Team that approves residential placements, said it is students and parents who ultimately choose the facility.

The team is made up of officials with the Delaware Department of Education, child services and other departments who understand the child's specific needs, she said.

Conrad said salaries for personnel involved at AdvoServ account for some of the high costs.

"Certainly costs concern us, but you want to do what's in the best interest of the child in the long run," he said. "You'd be surprised how many folks you might need to support a child with intensive needs."

According to AdvoServ's website, a team of supporting physicians, nurse practitioners, RNs, LPNs, dieticians, speech and language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists and certified special education teachers offer services. Some employees have doctorates or master's degrees, the website notes.

Over the past year, listed job openings at AdvoServ for direct care professionals and community living specialists paying $20,000-$25-000 a year. Hourly pay was listed as $12 to $13. Openings for RNs requiring only two years of experience did not list a salary, neither did a program director opening requiring a four-year degree.

A position for behavior specialist was listed at $46,000 a year at

The U.S. Department of Labor lists 2012 average annual salaries and hourly rates for the following: Psychologists, $69,000 or $33 an hour; psychiatrists $180,000 or $86 an hour; occupational therapists $83,000 or $40 an hour; physical therapists $86,000 or $41 an hour; and nurse practitioners at $73,000 or $35 an hour.

Mary Ann Mieczkowski, director of Exceptional Children Resources Teaching and Learning Branch for the Delaware Department of Education, defended the high cost of residential care.

"We're always great stewards of taxpayer dollars; however, the needs of the student need to be addressed first," she said.

The free appropriate public education (FAPE) provision required by law is the driving force behind residential placement decisions, Mieczkowski said.

"The children that come through the ICT (Intra-Agency Collaborative Team) have very unique needs," she said. "We're required … to meet their needs."

When asked whether $200,000 a year for residential placement meets legal requirements when compared to the average Delaware student cost of $11,300, she said, "If their needs far exceed the average student, we have to meet their needs."

The high cost of residential placement has come as a shock to Cape board Vice President Spencer Brittingham.

"Now that I know about the costs, it's something I would like to look into more," he said.

Lawsuits against school districts

A search of lawsuits filed by parents who wanted a school district to pay for costly school services for their special needs students revealed two local cases. In both cases, the court ruled in favor of the school and school district to limit costs.

In one case, parents sued Appoquinimink School District because they wanted the district to pay for their deaf child to go to St. Anne's – a private K-8 school in Townsend – and to pay for a full-time sign language interpreter to accompany the child. The U.S. District Court for Delaware later ruled in favor of the school district finding that districts are not required to pay for all services a child might ask for but only for a free appropriate public education.

In a separate case, parents of a fourth-grader who had disabilities withdrew him from a Cape Henlopen school, enrolled him in a private school and then sought reimbursement from the school district. The court ruled in favor of Cape after the parents twice filed suit – again finding districts are required to provide an education but not everything a parent might request.

Mieczkowski said threats of lawsuits are not a consideration when a child is placed in residential care. She has, however, noticed an increase in due process filings over the past year arising when a parent asks for a hearing. Education officials then offer mediation between a school district and parent who cannot reach an agreement on services.

"I don't think of due process; I think of what the child deserves," she said.

Asked whether parents pressure schools to put children in specialized placements, Mieczkowski and Conrad declined to comment. Both said parents of students in residential treatment come from all walks of life.

AdvoServ's location and services make it a favorable option for officials looking to place Delaware students in a residential placement facility, Mieczkowski said.

"This is an in-state school that's close," she said. "The family can get to that student, if the needs of the student can be met at that school."

During a tour of the facility, Minard said there was a tremendous amount of staffing at the facility – all were well-dressed, as were the students.

Still, she said she is not sure how the staffing numbers translate to the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent each year to send children there.

"What I saw was very impressive, but it seemed like a dog-and-pony show," she said.

Some classrooms had only a couple of students; the guide said other students were on an outing, Minard said.

Students live in group homes spread throughout neighborhoods in Bear, and they are bused to AdvoServ for classes and instruction, Minard said. She did not visit a group home but viewed some activity through a monitoring system. She said two-way cameras are in all the rooms at the group homes.

The students she observed are some of the same students featured in AdvoServ's latest online promotional brochure, she said. Minard said she did not see the bright, airy gymnasium prominently featured in the brochure. A Swiss-chalet style home serves as the administrative building; a former stable has been converted to classrooms, she said.

"The setting and building for the main administrative office were beautiful," Minard said. "But the classrooms were small. Every kid we saw had one person with them; one small class had two employees. They have a huge staff up there."

Classrooms were stocked with bags of candy and treats, which were handed out to the students when they did something right, she said.

"It's very reward-based," Minard said. "It reminded me of when I was raising a seeing-eye puppy."

Education costs vs. residential care

Comparing the 33 Delaware students who attend residential facilities, in Delaware and elsewhere, with a breakdown provided by individual school districts of the number of students they send to residential facilities, it appears the majority of students statewide come from Kent and Sussex counties. DOE's Mieczkowski said it was incorrect to say more downstate than upstate students attend residential facilities, but she did not respond to a request for the number of students by county who attend residential placement.

New Castle County school districts send some students to High Road day school in Wilmington, which serves high-needs students, DOE's Smith said.

However, Smith said, High Road day school is an option only for New Castle County students.

"It's feasible for those students to be transported home, while it's not feasible for [downstate] students to be transported to Wilmington from Sussex County or from some areas of Kent County," she said. "Once in a while we have had a student from Kent County sent up to High Road, but that would be the outside travel time of about an hour."

Placement at High Road is significantly less expensive than residential alternatives because it is a day school only.

Capital School District buses two students to the High Road facility; the district pays about $33,000 a year each for their tuition share, according to costs provided by Sean Sokolowski, business manager for Capital – about half of what Cape pays to send students to AdvoServ.

Minard had requested an itemized account from the district officials who in turn requested the information from DOE before Fulton said the district receives no itemized bill for services.

Confusing matters more, DOE's May said school districts are provided the cost information.

"The invoices we receive include the students’ names, per diem charges for education and, if applicable, residential services for that month. The districts hold the contracts that include itemized costs," she said.

Regardless of whether an itemized bill exists at all, Cape's Minard says costs associated with residential care need scrutiny.

"We are charged with the education of all the students in our district. Nobody is denying the need for services for special needs students and the privacy laws associated with their needs, but transparency is required with public funds," Minard said. "AdvoServ is a private facility, however once they accept public funds they must understand the questions that accompany those funds. They open the door to public scrutiny and accountability to more than just the family of the student."


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