School chief proposes new special needs programs
Faced with a significant increase in the number of children with intensive special education needs, Island school administrators are laying the groundwork for expanding and funding programs to accommodate these children as they enter preschool and elementary school.
Superintendent of public schools James Weiss met with the Martha's Vineyard Finance Association (MVFA) late Tuesday afternoon to discuss three program enhancements, two of which concern special education, that he said will have a significant impact on his office's fiscal 2009 (FY09) budget.
While he did not have exact budget numbers available yet, Mr. Weiss said he is well aware that "new programs cost money," and that he wanted to advise Island finance and advisory committee (FinCom) members about them before he presents his draft budget to the All Island School Committee on Oct. 18.
Special education staff members from the superintendent's office who attended the meeting included student support services director Dan Seklecki, early childhood coordinator Ann Palches, and autism specialist Hope MacLeod.
Mr. Weiss said he is proposing two new special education classes as shared services in the superintendent's budget, which will include an additional Project Headway preschool classroom and an elementary school special program for students with significant communication disabilities or on the autism spectrum.
For many years, Mr. Weiss explained, the Vineyard school system has served preschool children with significant educational needs through Project Headway, an Island-wide program funded through the superintendent's office rather than by individual school districts.
Mr. Seklecki said that each of the Island's school committees is responsible for providing services to children with special needs starting at age three.
According to an information sheet provided by Mr. Weiss at the meeting, since 1981 the Island school system has provided preschool special education services at Project Headway, a specialized preschool housed for many years at Camp Jabberwocky in Tisbury and more recently at Edgartown School. Project Headway has serviced up to seven students with moderate to severe disabilities, along with a similar number of students with other special needs.
Since 1992, the school system also provided direct special education services and consultation for children with mild to moderate needs within community-based preschool programs.
Both programs were funded through the superintendent's office and federal special education entitlement funds. However, as Mr. Weiss pointed out, in the past few years, grant money has been declining. "It's going to fall on the taxpayer, more than likely," he said. "The one hope we have is some of the funds may come back a year later through state circuit-breaker funds."
This year, the number of children with moderate to severe disabilities at Project Headway increased to 10, going over the allowable limit of seven. "We haven't had a cluster of children with communications disorders like this until recently, which necessitated the need for a second preschool program," Mr. Seklecki said. Early intervention programs aimed at children less than three years old on the Island are serving children in larger numbers with greater needs, he added, before they reach the age where they will need to be served by individual schools or else in a shared program.
Mr. Seklecki and Mr. Weiss, along with other special education staff members, scrambled to open and fund a second Project Headway classroom with a teacher and assistants at Edgartown School this year.
Ms. Palches said that when special education staff developed budgets a year ago, they did not know they would need a second classroom. "We expect the numbers will maintain next year," she said.
An Island program for preschool special needs children up to the age of three has grown over the years from serving two to 10 children, to serving 27 this year, all of whom will require services when they reach age three, she pointed out.
Since no funds were budgeted for the additional class, Mr. Weiss said his staff had to reorder the shared services they were able to offer. Next year, it will be necessary to continue operating the second classroom and to fund it appropriately, he added.
In addition, the students in Project Headway who will be moving up to the elementary school level will need a higher grade, center-based program. Currently, seven of 10 children at Project Headway have special needs associated with autism and communications and social interaction disorders, Ms. Palches said.
The number of such children has continued to grow, Mr. Weiss said, and although it worked for many years to utilize a consultant assisting regular and special education teachers in their local schools, the growing number of students on the autism spectrum or with communication disorders has forced the school system to reexamine how services are provided. The sheer number and severity of the students coming into the Island public schools system necessitates establishing a specialized program for them, he said.
"We see the need to provide a consolidated program to focus on the students' individual needs," Ms. MacLeod further explained. "Our goal is to include them fully in regular education settings as they develop skills. For kids with such significant needs, a consolidated facility is the best model. The level of services will have to be intensive."
Mr. Weiss told the MVFA that he is proposing one shared specialized elementary program under the superintendent's budget. "If we don't have a collaborative program, there will be at least three schools that will have to find a way to fund that program," Mr. Weiss said. "We're suggesting one shared program for an elementary group of students, housed in one elementary school."
Since enrollment has declined in Tisbury and up-Island schools, Mr. Weiss said he can find space for a new classroom, while leaving the two Project Headway classrooms at Edgartown School.
Oak Bluffs finance and advisory committee (FinCom) member Peter Palches asked Mr. Weiss whether any of the Island towns had suggested paying for special education services on a per capita basis.
"Our approach has been that each town pays a share towards a program for whoever needs it," Mr. Weiss said. "If you look at the numbers over time, every town has used special education services." He provided numbers showing usage of special education programs by district.
In looking ahead to fiscal year 2009, "We know right now there are three children who will need to be in this program, one from West Tisbury, one from Edgartown, and one from Chilmark," Mr. Weiss said. "If each school district has to have one teacher and one assistant for those students, plus other necessary resources, that could add $150,000 to $200,000 to their budgets. We believe this shared program could do it more efficiently and more economically."
Mr. Weiss also discussed a third proposal to add the position of a facilities manager to his budget, who would work with school administrators and head custodians in overseeing all of the Island's school buildings, including maintenance and capital projects. Mr. Weiss proposed the position last year, but removed it from his budget in an effort to reduce the overall increase. Although he believes that having a facilities manager will reduce facilities' costs over time, Mr. Weiss said the position will initially cost money for a salary and benefits package, which he estimated a year ago at $60,000 to $80,000.
He invited everyone to attend the AISC meeting at 7 pm on Oct. 18 at the regional high school's library conference room, where he will present his FY09 superintendent's office budget.
The MVFA, chaired by Tisbury FinCom member Jonathan Snyder, meets monthly from September through May and is open to all members of Island FinCom members. In addition to Mr. Snyder, Tisbury FinCom members Robert Franklin, Peter Goodale, and Peter Hefler attended Tuesday's meeting, along with Oak Bluffs FinCom member Thad Harshbarger and Mr. Palches.