Schools plan long-range for growing special education costs


The burgeoning cost of special education, coupled with unanticipated expenses for new students that move into a school district, can deliver a big, often unanticipated blow to carefully planned budgets. With that in mind, superintendent of schools James Weiss and the All-Island School Committee (AISC) have been working since last spring on a new long-range planning initiative for special education (SPED) programs in Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS).

When it comes to special education, increased costs to provide services mandated by federal and state laws have a significant impact on school budgets. How the services are provided is up to individual school districts.

On Martha’s Vineyard, the superintendent’s budget includes expenses not only for his office but also shared services, which primarily support SPED, as well as other programs provided to students Island-wide in five school districts. Occupational, physical, and vision therapies, as well as psychological evaluations, are among the SPED services.

The costs are divided among MVPS elementary school districts in the towns of Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury, and two regional school districts. Those include the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) for elementary students in Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury, and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School District (MVRHS) for high school students from all towns.

MVRHS pays 20 percent of the cost of the shared services and programs it uses. The town elementary school districts and UIRSD pay a percentage based on enrollment, which means that their cost shares may fluctuate from year to year.

Anticipating future needs

The superintendent traditionally leads the way in the school budget process and presents his budget for the next fiscal year in September. As Mr. Weiss described at the All-Island School Committee’s (AISC) May 9 meeting, every year there are inevitably significant changes in the shared services budget that require difficult adjustments for Island school districts during their subsequent budget processes.

“My goal here 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?” Mr. Weiss said. “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.”

Since May Mr. Weiss has discussed the long-range SPED planning with selectmen and/or finance committee members in Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and West Tisbury, he said in an email in response to questions emailed from The Times. He also sent copies of the plan to officials in the other towns and plans to meet with the Edgartown finance committee soon.

As an example of recent SPED budget increases, 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.

“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 said at the AISC’s May meeting. “And because in many cases, the children are here already and we know what their needs are, we can make some determination over time.”

Shared services programs

The three key components in long-range planning for shared services programs are the Bridge Program, social skills and Project Headway programs, and residential placements, Mr. Weiss said.

The Bridge Program, located at Edgartown School, serves students with autism spectrum disorders and communication and social interaction disorders. The program was added to the superintendent’s shared services budget in the 2008-2009 school year. A second Bridge Program was funded in the superintendent’s FY12 budget to add a teacher and an assistant to work with the oldest students.

As Mr. Weiss reminded the school committee, it is a very labor-intensive program.

“The two teachers in the Bridge Program are out straight, working with challenging youngsters the entire school day,” he said. “And we also provide after-school programs and transportation. We’re fortunate we found good people to do all of that. They’re doing great work, but it’s not easy. These are our toughest kids.”

The Island school system also provides preschool SPED services in two Project Headway classes housed at West Tisbury School. The preschool classes combine SPED students and regular education students designated as “peer models.”

Other SPED programs include a middle school social skills class for students in grades five through eight held at Oak Bluffs School and an elementary social skills class for students in kindergarten through grade four held at Edgartown School.

“These are youngsters who have significant difficulty behaving in school in a way that will allow them to learn, because of social and emotional difficulties,” Mr. Weiss explained. The social skills program’s classes, although small, are also labor-intensive.

“Putting these programs together as we’ve done we believe is better programmatically, keeps more youngsters here on the Island rather than having to go off, and is more fiscally responsible,” Mr. Weiss said. “Because if every individual building had to replicate the programs, it would become much more expensive.”

Some SPED students that need specialty services and programs unavailable on Martha’s Vineyard may require “residential placements” and live in educational facilities off Island. Those expenses are funded in local school budgets and are not included in the superintendent’s shared services budget.

Long-range plans

In anticipation of SPED needs in the 2013-2014 school year, Mr. Weiss told the school committee that the Bridge and Project Headway programs would require more staff. His budget for FY14 includes two additional full-time equivalent (FTE) Education Support Professionals (ESPs) in the Bridge Program, at a cost of $71,882, and one in the Project Headway program, at a cost of $36,234.

Due to a significant growth in the number of students who need speech and language department services, an additional .5 FTE speech and language therapist were also included, at a cost of $31,054.

In looking ahead, Mr. Weiss said he and the SPED staff expect about the same number of students in the Bridge Program this year as last year. In the 2014-15 school year, however, they anticipate an increase in the number of students and needs. With that in mind, Mr. Weiss said he would propose adding a Bridge class in the FY 15 shared services budget. The social skills and Project Headway programs are expected to remain the same through FY16, with two classes each.

The long-range plan for the shared services budget also includes other expenses such as transportation and summer school. Transportation costs are projected to increase from $110,000 in FY13 to more than $200,000 in FY16, and summer school expenses from $85,959 to more than $100,000.

The wild card

Residential care remains the wild card in the deck of SPED expenses. Last year, for example, the regional high school had to deal with the financial impact of three students that unexpectedly moved into the district and required residential care placements.

To address long-range planning for the high school’s residential care expenses, Mr. Weiss and the SPED staff prepared a projection for FY13 through FY16. It includes expenses for 18 students currently in the program, plus $100,000 to fund residential care for one “unknown student” and summer programs starting in FY14.

Given the high school’s experience last year, Mr. Weiss said, “Chances are it could happen again, so we need to have a prudent plan in place to deal with it.”

The projected total gross residential care expenses range from $1,058,584 in FY13 to a high of $1,235,775 in FY 15. The figures include a five percent increase per year, which has been the average in the past.

The high school does receive state Special Education Circuit Breaker funds to help defray a percentage of the extra expenses, based on a complex formula. The funds lag a year behind.

The projected state reimbursement for FY13, for example, is $204,394, leaving the high school with about $854,000 to pay for net residential care expenses from its general fund. In FY14, the cost certified in the high school’s budget is projected to rise to $929,443.

Expenses vary from student to student and year to year because some of them participate in a summer program only, receive a diploma, or “age out” of services at 22, according to interim director of student support services Donna Lowell-Bettencourt. As an example of the range of expenses, one student’s residential care is expected to increase from $32,046 in FY14 to $230,000 in FY15 and FY16. Costs are subject to change, as a student’s needs may evolve.

As a new school year starts on September 9, so does the budget process for Mr. Weiss.

“We want to make this as transparent as possible, so people won’t get surprised,” he told the AISC.