State’s Contribution To Special Needs Education Falling Behind Costs
By: Elise R. Hugus
Even in the best of economic times, the school department struggles to balance the curriculum requirements of more than 3,000 students with state mandates to provide “free and appropriate” education to those with special needs. Cuts to the Fiscal Year 2011 school budget have spurred proposals to cut special education staff, raising questions about the district’s ability to meet its obligations.
“It’s a balancing act between meeting the needs of special education students and shrinking budgets,” said Superintendent of Falmouth Schools Marc P. Dupuis in an interview earlier this month. “We’re working very hard to manage it.”
Special education accounts for nearly a quarter of the district’s annual budget, but the state’s contribution to the program does not match growing demand for services in Falmouth. The problem is compounded by reductions to the state “circuit breaker” fund, which reimburses the district for out-of-district special education tuitions.
State and federal laws mandate that students with a variety of disabilities be provided with special education services, delivered through an individualized education program (IEP). In Falmouth, 670 students are on an IEP, serviced by 55 special education teachers and 58 teaching assistants.
The IEP team is made up of school administrators, counselors, teachers, parents, and the student, with the goal of helping the student make effective progress in the general curriculum in the “least restrictive environment.” Depending on the child’s disability, a student on an IEP may receive one-on-one instruction in the classroom, may be pulled out of the classroom for occupational or speech therapy, or may spend all or part of the day in a separate classroom with other children with similar needs.
But with up to 12 special education professionals slated to be cut from the Fiscal Year 2011 budget, meeting IEP priorities next year could prove more challenging than in years past. In the 2008-2009 school year, 656 students had an IEP. In 2007-2008, there were 629 students on an IEP.
Though the budget has yet to be finalized, Mr. Dupuis has proposed reductions to school staff, which he said reflected declining enrollment. In the proposal, four special education teachers would be eliminated: two from Lawrence School, one from Morse Pond School, and one from East Falmouth Elementary School. In addition, eight teacher’s assistants could be cut from schools across the district, some of whom work in special education.
Beverly Shea, the director of pupil and personnel services, said the proposed staffing cuts would not impact the quality of education that special needs students receive. “It all depends on what the [specialist] does and the intensity of the service. If there are staffing reductions and that means the remaining staff has a greater caseload, it won’t affect our ability to deliver the IEP,” she said.
However, some parents are concerned that increasing numbers of students on IEPs, coupled with a reduction in staff, will affect their children’s development. Elizabeth Homand, co-chairman of the Falmouth Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said that the group understands the budget constraints, but access to services should not be impacted.
“With the shrinking budget and staff cuts that accompany it, it will be even harder for parents to ensure their children receive adequate supports,” she said.
In the Fiscal Year 2009 school budget, special education expenses amounted to $9.23 million, out of a total budget of $40.9 million. Federal stimulus grants and circuit breaker funding added an additional $2.4 million to the special education budget.
Figures for the current fiscal year are not yet available, since the school year is not over yet, said Mr. Dupuis.
“We’re in the process of reviewing the program so that it operates as effectively and efficiently as possible,” he said. To this end, the elementary Therapeutic Intervention Program (TIP) will be moved from Mullen-Hall School to Teaticket Elementary School next year, a change that will affect several students with IEPs.
In addition to programs offered in Falmouth schools, 51 Falmouth students have disabilities that require out-of-district services at regional specialized schools, such as the Cape Cod Collaborative in Bourne, the Pilgrim Collaborative in Plymouth, or the READS Collaborative in Middleborough, as well as a variety of private programs, said Ms. Shea.
Due to budget cuts at the state level, “circuit breaker” reimbursement for out-of-district tuitions exceeding $30,000 was reduced from 75 percent to 40 percent, said Mr. Dupuis. That means that Falmouth would be compensated $8,000 for a student whose expenses were $50,000 for the year, rather than $14,000, as previously funded. In the current school year, out-of-district tuitions amounted to $2.18 million, and are projected to increase to $2.47 million next year.
The goal of any IEP is to keep the students as close to their homes as possible, Ms. Shea said. But some services, especially those requiring medical attention, are not cost-effective to offer in Falmouth, she said.
Out-of-district transportation costs are not included in the tuitions, and were never covered by the state. Mr. Dupuis said he is working with other superintendents in the region to see where transportation costs could be shared.
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