Legislators, municipal leaders discuss special education cost issues

Norwich — About 50 state legislators and municipal leaders gathered at City Hall Monday to discuss ways to tackle the skyrocketing cost of special education and the state and federal mandates they say are crippling local school budgets across the region.

The group raised issues such as declining state and federal reimbursement rates, lack of control over special education placements and the uncertainty they all bring to local budget processes.

Bozrah Board of Finance Chairman Michael Connor then brought the issue home.

Connor said as town officials neared the end of the budget process this spring, they learned a new student had moved to town with high needs that would cost about $150,000 per year. Within a week, that estimate had climbed to more than $200,000 for the one student. Town leaders ended up budgeting $260,000 for the student.

“And it’s just as likely that student could move out of town and we won’t have to spend that money,” Connor said. “It’s frustrating as hell. We’re not even allowed to question the numbers.”

Monday’s forum was called by Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom after Norwich school officials told the mayor and City Council that they could not cut the $4 million from the school board’s requested 2018-19 budget of $83 million and the City Council’s approved $78.4 million total. The Norwich school board also is projecting a $1.5 million to $2 million budget deficit in the fiscal year just ended, most of that attributed to special education costs.

The forum started with presentations by three officials from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, who gave overviews of special education costs in the state. CCM Deputy Director Ron Thomas said there are about 70,000 special education students in the state, and $1 of every $5 in education spending goes for special education.

The federal government “is supposed to pay 40 percent” of the state’s special education costs, Thomas said, but only pays 10 percent.

Municipalities in Connecticut pay $1.2 billion of the statewide $2 billion in special education costs, and while the state reimburses towns for so-called excess costs — a portion of the cost for high-needs students, such as the Bozrah example — the state hasn’t increased the $140 million allocated for excess cost in the past 10 years, CCM officials said.

The CCM leaders said the organization has formed a task force to make recommendations to the state legislature for improving special education funding. One proposal that could become controversial would put the “burden of proof” on the plaintiffs in special education program placement suits.

Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon said the only way to solve the issues of skyrocketing costs and unfunded mandates would be for CCM and the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education to work together and present possible solutions to legislators. The current formulas for Education Cost Sharing grants — the main state education grant formula — do not meet the state Constitution mandate of equal access to education.

“The system is destined to fail,” Congdon said. “A Greenwich can afford to pay more than a distressed municipality for education access.”

CABE President Robert Mitchell, a Montville Board of Education member, responded that the two entities are working together and have another meeting scheduled for next month. CCM officials and Norwich Mayor Nystrom said they hope special education funding becomes an issue in the fall legislative session.

State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, whose district includes Norwich, said he has met with Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver and school officials to compile a list of unfunded state education mandates. The list had “literally hundreds” of mandates and was 25 pages long, single spaced, Dubitsky said, and consumes thousands of hours of staff time and “millions of dollars.”

Dubitsky said local legislators are tackling the list a few at a time and managed to get legislation passed this year to remove two or three mandates.

Preston Board of Education Chairman Sean Nugent said that effort won’t be good enough or quick enough. Legislators and municipal government leaders need to work together to “break the mold” of the formulas now in place.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said cities and towns have to cooperate too, by being more willing to regionalize.

“They don’t want to,” she said.

Not identifying the towns involved, Somers said one local town — Stonington — offered high school space to a neighboring small town — North Stonington — but the smaller town decided to keep its high school and seek state reimbursement for a $38.5 million school renovation project.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said it is important for town officials to send a list of the most burdensome state mandates they would like to see reduced or eliminated to their legislators. That he said would make some progress on the issue. 

Nystrom asked attendees to sign up for subcommittees and be ready to meet again in about a month. No date was set for the next forum.

c.bessette@theday.com

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