Special education costs drive increase in superintendent’s budget

James Weiss, superintendent of Martha's Vineyard Public Schools. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

More special education support staff to handle an influx of students with complex disabilities accounts for a large part of a 4.96 percent increase requested by Martha’s Vineyard superintendent of schools James Weiss in his budget for next year.

Mr. Weiss presented his $4.042 million fiscal 2013 (FY13) budget, up from $3.85 million in FY12, to the All-Island School Committee (AISC) at a meeting at the regional high school on October 20.

The superintendent traditionally leads the way in the annual school budget process that begins in the fall, since his budget includes not only his office but also shared services and programs, including special education, provided through his office to the Island’s five school districts.

The costs of those services and programs are divided among the districts, which include the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) District and the Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and Up-Island Regional school districts.

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

“My goal was to give you tonight a level-service budget, which we actually in a sense have done better than a level-service budget, because we figure most of our people, 86 percent, are staff in this budget. And we came in at a 1.5 percent increase before we got started,” Mr. Weiss told the AISC members.

Personnel costs

That increase includes benefits and payroll obligations of certain grant employees and changes in personnel, according to school business administrator Amy Tierney. The superintendent’s budget includes teachers, Educational Support Professionals (ESPs), secretaries, and central office administrators, she said, which add up to about 45 regular employees and 9 grant employees.

Contractual obligations in FY13 for the school system’s teachers and secretaries will result in a 2.75 percent increase in their salary matrixes and step increases of between 3.5 to 5 percent per step. ESPs will receive a 2 percent salary increase and an extra step increase of 5 percent. Some personnel could receive as much as six to seven percent salary increases, Mr. Weiss told the school committee.

Increased special education needs

In addition to personnel cost increases, Mr. Weiss said increased special education (SPED) needs costs push his total budget up by 4.96 percent.

Additional SPED staff and program changes for FY13 total $130,843, an increase of about 3.4 percent. At director of student support services Dan Seklecki’s recommendation, Mr. Weiss requested the addition of a full-time education support professional (ESP) to the Bridge Program, at a cost of $50,469 for salary and benefits, and two full-time ESPs to the Project Headway program, at a cost of $80,373.

Mr. Seklecki, who attended the meeting, said although the MVPS school enrollment has flattened over the last few years, “What we’re seeing over the last five years is an increase in students with more complex, more multiply involved needs.”

The Bridge Program, located at Edgartown School, serves students with autism spectrum disorders and communication and social interaction disorders. Currently the Bridge Program supports 11 children from Island-wide with two teachers and seven assistants, Mr. Seklecki said.

“But in addition to the kids with autism spectrum concerns are kids that we call medically fragile or multiply handicapped or multiply disabled kids with more of those profiles,” he added. “And so kids that are not mobile on their own, kids who do not have self-help skills or self-protection skills — these are children that you could never, ever leave unattended.”

For the past few years, an ESP position in the Bridge Program was funded with Federal money, which is no longer available, Mr. Weiss said.

“We had hoped to absorb the cost or do away with that position, but looking at the number of youngsters that is not possible,” he explained.

Mr. Seklecki said the number of children in the school system with Down’s syndrome has also increased. While in the past, there might be one student from preschool to high school in a given school year with that profile, Mr. Seklecki said the district now has seven or eight.

“And in our preschools we now have three little guys and little girls,” he said. “We want to set them up with the right foundation in preschool and then send them on to be received in the elementary schools.”

The Project Headway program includes two preschool classes located at West Tisbury School. Currently there are 9 SPED students and 14 regular education students designated as “peer models,” with one teacher and two assistants for each class. Special education services include occupational, physical, and vision therapies, as well as psychological evaluations.

Mr. Seklecki said the Project Headway program is dealing with a significant influx this year, with four students expected to transition to its classrooms from EI programs by February, and four more anticipated next September.

“Looking at their significant medical needs, we felt compelled to add an ESP or assistant to each of those classes, because of the number and severity,” Mr. Weiss said. “That accounts for the $80,373.”

His proposed budget also includes increased funds for a SPED summer school program, which cost more than anticipated this year. The summer program is part of a year-round program required for SPED students with intense needs.

AISC chairman Dan Cabot asked what it would cost to accommodate students on a waiting list for the strings music program, which is currently staffed by one teacher, one part-time teacher, and an accompanist. Mr. Weiss estimated it would cost about $35,000 more to run the program with two full-time teachers.

“I wouldn’t be comfortable recommending that based on financial realities,” he said.

Mr. Weiss will present a second version of his draft FY13 budget, which will include amounts for FY12 preliminary grants, for the AISC’s review and vote at a meeting on November 2. The meeting starts at 7 pm in the MVRHS library conference room.