Special ed drives increase in superintendent’s budget

The cost of additional special education programming and staff adds up to a large part of a 7.45 percent increase requested by Martha’s Vineyard superintendent of schools James Weiss in a draft budget for his office and shared programs for schools Island-wide.

Mr. Weiss made the first presentation of his proposed fiscal year 2012 (FY12) $3.84 million budget, up from $3.57 million in FY11, to the All-Island School Committee (AISC) at a meeting at the regional high school on October 14. Copies of the draft budget were mailed to town finance and advisory committees the previous week. Tonight the AISC meets again to review and discuss the budget.

The Island’s school system includes five districts. The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) District includes students from Island-wide; the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) includes students from Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury, who attend the Chilmark School (grades K-5) and West Tisbury School (grades K-8).

Depending on the type of school program, some costs are split between five school districts, including the high school, while shared elementary school programs are divided among the four elementary school districts. The costs for school programs are divided among the Island school districts based on enrollment. Consequently, enrollment fluctuations affect the cost shares allocated to each Island school district.

Three proposed additions and changes in special education (SPED) programs total about $236,000 (6.62 percent) of the $266,498 (7.45 percent) total increase in the FY12 budget. The new items include a second Bridge Program for students with significant autism spectrum concerns, an expanded SPED summer school program, and the addition of a physical therapist to the superintendent’s staff.

A second Bridge Program

Mr. Weiss requested an additional $114,167 for the Bridge Program to fund an additional teacher and an assistant to work with the oldest students. For the past two years an assistant’s position was funded with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds, which are no longer available.

The Bridge Program was added to the shared services budget in the 2008-2009 school year to serve students with autism spectrum disorders and communication and social interaction disorders.

With Mr. Weiss’ support, members of his staff — including director of student services Dan Seklecki, early learning coordinator Ann Palches, and autism specialist Hope MacLeod — created and set up a collaborative program that would be efficient and cost-effective by serving children Island-wide.

The Center for Children with Special Needs in Glastonbury, Conn., provided consultation and staff training during the Bridge Program’s startup, funded by grants.

Currently the Bridge Program, located at Edgartown School, has nine students in the kindergarten, first, and second grade levels; they are taught by one head teacher and six teaching assistants. Next year four to five students are expected to move into grade three.

At the AISC meeting Mr. Seklecki said his department expects 12 children — 8 from Edgartown, 3 from West Tisbury, and 1 from Oak Bluffs — in the program next year in the kindergarten through grade three age groups.

While some require minimal or partial support, others require constant care, Mr. Seklecki said. Many of the Bridge Program students are making progress towards complete inclusion in general education classrooms but are not ready yet, he added.

The Island school system also provides preschool special education services in two Project Headway classes housed at West Tisbury School. Other special education programs include a middle school social skills program at Oak Bluffs School and an elementary social skills class at Edgartown School. Mr. Weiss said since all the programs benefit a mix of students Island-wide, the cost balances out among the towns.

“I don’t see how at this point we could even consider how it would work if the individual schools would have to provide the services individually,” AISC chairman Daniel Cabot said.

More summer services

Mr. Weiss also proposed an additional $35,716 for the expansion of the school system’s SPED summer program. It serves elementary school aged children with multiple disabilities who need extended year services in accordance with state and federal guidelines. In years past the shared services program was underfunded, school business administrator Amy Tierney said.

The increase in summer program funding correlates to an increase in SPED programs, Mr. Seklecki noted. The Project Headway program doubled in size in FY09, services for children with autism spectrum disorders increased, and a social skills program was added over the last few years. The SPED summer program run by the superintendent’s office served more than 40 children last summer, for 20 hours a week for 6 weeks.

“The public needs to know this isn’t the only summer program for special education kids,” committee member Priscilla Sylvia of Oak Bluffs also pointed out. “Every town takes on its own youngsters.” Individual school districts also include money in their budgets to handle SPED and non-SPED summer programs.

Physical therapist on staff

The third significant budget item is the addition of a physical therapist to the superintendent’s staff, at a cost of $87,016. The AISC approved Mr. Weiss’ recommendation last May to hire a physical therapist as an employee, to save money, rather than contracting physical therapy services at an hourly rate. His staff also includes positions for speech, language, and occupational therapists

Although the position was not budgeted as a line item in the FY11 budget, physical therapist Molly Chavtal was added to the superintendent’s staff this school year and her salary is paid proportionately by each school district.

By making her an employee, Mr. Weiss said he expects the school system will save about $20,000 this year and more in the future. In FY10 the school system paid Ms. Chavtal about $120,000, out of which she paid taxes, insurance, and other fees, Mr. Weiss said. This year, she will receive about $87,000 and a benefits package.

School committee member Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter suggested that the physical therapist’s position should not be considered a new expense entirely, since funds for the contracted physical therapy services were already in the budget in a different place.

In looking at the overall picture, Mr. Weiss said that without the new items and program changes, the rest of his budget reflects a very modest increase of .83 percent, including salary increments and changes. He said he and his staff made some assumptions in the budget regarding salary increments for union contracts not yet negotiated and healthcare costs. Grant amounts were not included on the first budget draft.

The majority of his staff members provide direct services to students, with 35 in shared services, 7.5 in administrative leadership functions, and 6 in financial administration, Mr. Weiss said.

In other business, the AISC voted to accept a letter of retirement with regret from early childhood coordinator Ann Palches, effective April 30.

“She has been our bridge from home to early intervention to kindergarten,” Mr. Weiss said. “We will surely miss her.”

The AISC meets tonight at 6 pm in the Edgartown School Library. In addition to the budget discussion, Mr. Weiss plans to present three new policies regarding anti-bullying, cyber-bullying, and harassment for a first reading.