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WESTBROOK - When new students move into a school district each summer, space usually can be found for them in existing classes and classrooms. If the new students are special education students with extraordinary needs, howeve, district school budgets, no matter how carefully planned, can be busted.
Just such a budget crisis driven by unexpectedly high special education costs faces the Westbrook Public Schools. More special education students with extraordinary special needs now live in the district than when the current budget was adopted in March 2013. Additionally, other students already here were found to need expanded levels of special education services. Together these two trends punched a $450,000 hole in the school district's current budget. The higher level of services and costs won't go away next year, so the added $450,000 is also embedded in the school district's proposed budget.
On March 10 (after press time) at the Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting, the board was slated to act on whether or not to send a $450,000 appropriation request, an amount already approved by the Board of Finance, on to Town Meeting for approval. The tentative date for that Town Meeting would be Monday, March 24.
"We are ever mindful at every Planning and Placement Team [PPT] meeting of assessing how to provide the services these students need. There's a range of costs the district pays to provide an education for these students," said Superintendent of Schools Pat Ciccone.
What types of costs? For special education students who remain in the district, expanded levels of services can mean assessments, evaluations, and one-on-one paraprofessional aides to help them in the classroom. For students whose extraordinary needs cannot be accommodated in-district, it means the costs of bus transportation and school tuition to attend a school outside of the district. At the last Board of Education meeting, the enrollment report showed that 10 students currently are transported to out-of-district schools.
This year Westbrook's budget for special education transportation is $318,256. Next year, to accommodate the needs of known special education students with extraordinary needs, the special education transportation budget will rise to $675,552. The district also must pay the cost of tuition at these out-of-district schools. This year, the average annual tuition cost for an out-of-district special education placement is $78,828.
Must the local school district pay for these charges? Under the federal Individual with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), school districts are obligated by law to provide special education students with a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. In return, the federal government provides IDEA grant funding to help support special education programming in local school districts.
Under state law, each school district bears the legal burden to prove that the individualized education plan of the district's PPT for each special education student will meet that student's needs. Where the needs cannot be met in-district, an out-of-district placement may be recommended. The home school district of the student is responsible for the costs of this placement.
To help offset the special education students' high costs, the State of Connecticut's Department of Education (DOE) awards Special Education Excess Cost grants to local districts. The law defines excess costs as those costs that exceed 4 ½ times the cost to educate a regular education student. This means that the Westbrook schools pays the first $78,893 of a high-cost student's program and the state promises to pick up any added costs of that student's services.
But even State Special Education Excess Grant funds, though promised, do not always arrive. Over the past decade, the legislature has not appropriated sufficient funds to allow the state DOE to fully fund the Special Education Excess Cost grant formula. In fact the state in the past 10 years has provided districts with between 70 and 80 percent of the excess costs reimbursements they are owed by law.
This means that local taxpayers must foot the bill for the extraordinary but mandated costs to provide special education services to those students who need it.
The Town Meeting to act on the request to appropriate funding to offset a $450,000 shortfall in special education funding in the Board of Education budget is scheduled for March 24.