Editorial: Getting a handle on a unpredictable education cost

Editorial: Getting a handle on a unpredictable education cost

Educating nearly 2,300 or so Vineyard youngsters is expensive. Island taxpayers provide funds sufficient to make the per-pupil costs here equal to similar expenditures in the very richest communities in the Commonwealth. By dollar standards — which are certainly not the only standards that should be used to measure the quality of the effort made by the school system, or its efficiency — Vineyard kids get the best that public education can provide.

A large, growing, and not always predictable part of that spending is attributed to the provision of special education services. Getting a grip on anticipated future spending of this sort is an important goal of a new effort by Island school leaders.

Those costs here, driven by federal and state law and by a system-wide determination to identify children in need of added services, outpace similar budget outlays in many other Massachusetts school systems. And, Times news coverage of education spending has pointed repeatedly at the growing special education pricetag since the autumn of 2010. The growth of this cost center has prompted school leadership to introduce a long-range budgeting plan for special education service costs. Times writer Janet Hefler describes the effort in a report this morning. These costs are shared among the several elementary schools and the high school, and they can be startlingly large and unexpected, because the needs of new and transfer students may not be identified until school has begun each year. There can be budget wrecking surprises, and in each case the obligation must be met.

The news report this morning illustrates the problem. “As an example of recent SPED budget increases,” Ms. Hefler writes, “in fiscal year 2013 (FY13) additional staff and program changes totaled $130,843, a 3.4 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. Additional funds needed for SPED programs, support staff, substitutes, and transportation included in the superintendent’s FY14 budget total $203,720.”

Mr. Weiss has been busy since May alerting town leaders to the problem and discussing ways to moderate the budget swings.

“My goal here,” schools superintendent James Weiss told committee members, “is to give you this information, and then, frankly, to talk with FinComs and selectmen’s boards now and over the summer, before we start with the budget process, so it isn’t like, where the heck did that come from? Because I don’t see this getting any less expensive. I don’t see it requiring less service, and I think knowledge is going to be the key power.”

He means using historic data that’s available to calculate likely future financial demands.

“So what we’re trying to do is look at a five-year span, and be able to extrapolate from where we are now to what’s going to happen in the future,” Mr. Weiss school committee members and others in May. “And because in many cases, the children are here already and we know what their needs are, we can make some determination over time.”

At the heart of the budget problem and what contributes to what can be order of magnitude changes in required spending are personnel costs, which are higher per pupil served than is the case across the school population of children who don’t require such services. But, there are also increased transportation costs, and when specialized residential treatment is required, the financial requirement may be enormous.

Smart budgeting, as Mr. Weiss and school leaders envision it, will be an indispensable tool for education officials and town officials who must develop their own spending plans. Taxpayers will welcome this initiative. Taxpayers would also welcome a clearer understanding of how students who require such services are identified by school and system-wide staff.