With few opposed, Town Meeting members last night voted to create a Special Education Tuition Stabilization Fund to buffer the school department’s budget against unpredictable swings in “out-of-district” expenses.
Out-of-district schools are attended by special education students whose needs cannot be met in the public school system. The school department pays the tuition for these students.
Tuition can range from $40,000 at the Cape Cod Collaborative’s day program to $200,000 per student at a private residential facility.
This year, the school experienced an unanticipated spike in out-of-district expenses, which wiped out its own internal reserve fund and consumed money intended for supplies.
Daniel H. Shearer, Precinct 6, spoke against the stabilization fund. “This should happen, but should happen in the school budget,” he said. “Let’s keep the town and the school separate.”
Tapping the stabilization fund requires a two-thirds majority vote at Town Meeting. The school committee still intends to carry its own internal reserve account, although school committee members have discussed putting away a smaller amount should the town stabilization account pass.
The stabilization account passed by a voice vote, with perhaps a dozen opposed.
Next came the question of how and at what level to fund the stabilization account. This engendered longer debate.
The finance committee recommended $200,000 from the general town budget, and $600,000 to be transferred from the Health Insurance Stabilization Fund.
Gardner L. Lewis, Precinct 6, questioned why the town would take money from one stabilization account to feed another.
Selectman Douglas H. Jones explained that the health insurance fund was created from the savings that occurred when the town’s health care costs came in under budget, due to reforms.
However, after thinking the matter through, Mr. Jones said, the administration decided that health care costs increase in a relatively predictable manner, and, because they are not a one-time expense, should not be funded with a stabilization account, which is a one-time revenue source.
Finance committee vice chairman Nicholas S. Lowell, Precinct 5, said the special education stabilization fund would be reserved for an “extraordinary situation.”
Leslie R. Lichtenstein, Precinct 8, said the town is too eager to create stabilization accounts. “We’re just going to have a plethora of stabilization funds,” she said, predicating a stabilization fund for overdue books would be next.
Maureen S. O’Connell, Precinct 4, concurred. “Maybe we don’t want to have too many pockets,” she said.
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Despite the objections, the finance committee’s funding recommendation was approved by a strong voice vote.
Outside of Town Meeting, several Town Meeting members have expressed concern that the town is at the mercy of outrageous pricing practices at these out-of-district special education schools. They worry tuition at these schools is increasing in the double digits, and Falmouth is obligated to pay without having any control over costs.
Although many of these out-of-district schools are technically private, the state’s Operational Services Division regulates what they are allowed to charge. Governor Deval L. Patrick’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget calls for a rate freeze at these schools.