Special ed spikes

HOW TO FUND special education has always vexed state and local officials, but now many of them are struggling to deal with unexpected mid-year spikes in special ed costs as new students move into their districts.

One of the biggest issues for school officials is paying for services that can only be found outside the district. From transportation to the price of admission at residential schools, the cost to educate a child with special needs can run from $40,000 to more than $200,000 per student, far above the average $9,000 in-district cost for regular education students.

“We’re having a number of students moving into us that perhaps we didn’t anticipate at the beginning of the school year,” says Wareham Superintendent Kimberley Shaver-Hood, who estimates the unexpected cost to her budget just for this year is $200,000. “These students are ours and we would love to be able to program to meet their needs in-district, but we don’t have the capacity. We’re legally bound to meet those students’ needs.”

In Tewksbury, Superintendent John O’Connor says 22 new special education students moved into the border town in the last 18 months. While most who arrived during this school year came from other districts that have to pay for the remainder of the year because the students were already participating in special education programs out-of-district, the sudden influx punches a $1.8 million hole in next year’s 2016 budget.

O’Connor says the best alternative for his district is to develop programs within the system to meet the needs of special ed students without having to send them out of district at a cost four to 20 times higher than the average cost to teach a student in Tewksbury.

“It’s just we’re seeing kids with greater needs that are beyond our capabilities in the public schools,” says O’Connor. “We need to build capacity within the system to keep the kids here.”

Statewide, the percent of school budgets spent on special education has risen slightly over the last decade, from 18.6 percent in 2003 to 21 percent in 2013. Special ed budgets in Tewksbury and Wareham have risen at a slightly faster pace, with Tewksbury going from 19 percent to 23.7 percent, and Wareham increasing from 18.4 to 23.6 percent.

But it’s in out-of-district special ed placements where costs have spiraled. In Wareham, costs for out-of-district placements have gone up nearly 50 percent since 2003, while the regular school budget has risen slightly less than 30 percent.

In Tewksbury, those numbers are even more jarring. According to state data, the budget for out-of-district placements has increased 91.6 percent; for private and out-of-state placements, Tewksbury is dishing out 127 percent more than it did in 2003. Over that same time period, the overall school budget has increased just 37.8 percent.

Shaver-Hood says the district budgeted for about 25 special ed students last June, but 12 additional students were added during the year. She said some students are being evaluated now, so the number in special ed could increase by another 15 to 20 before the year is out.

Both O’Connor and Shaver-Hood say their situations are not unique, yet the reasons for the sudden influx vary. Shaver-Hood says she has seen an increase in foster children in her district as well as new families moving in with children requiring special needs. While he hasn’t witnessed a spike in foster children, O’Connor says new families moving into the district account for a vast majority of the increase.

But he is also seeing something new: grandparents and other relatives in his town taking over the care of children from parents in other towns who are unable to provide it. O’Connor says this dynamic adds to the emotional and behavioral toll on many children.

The state has a “circuit breaker” reimbursement program for communities, but the formula requires the cost to be at least four times the average student cost and then the community picks up 28 percent of the remainder before state reimbursement, which often lags months behind. When an unexpected special needs students arrives in the district, let alone a dozen or more at roughly the same time, that can create a gap that causes pain across the board.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

But both O’Connor and Shaver-Hood say none of it is the fault of children or their parents, that they have a right to an education as any student does. The problem, they say, is the lack of funding from state and federal governments for mandates that are beyond the community’s control.

“The federal government is only supporting some 20-odd percent of the overall cost,” O’Connor says. “How about they put in 50 percent and then the state puts in 50 percent? We are paying, in some instances, in excess of $175,000 to educate a single child for a year. Clearly, that is beyond the financial scope for communities to bear those costs.”