PARIS — The high costs of special education again held the attention of some 15 selectmen, town managers and others, as town officials were provided details of the proposed Fiscal 2019 school budget at a roundtable meeting April 3.
“If special education keeps going up it has to come from somewhere,” said Otisfield Selectmen Chairman Hal Ferguson, whose town will see the highest local assessment this year. “It’s really a balancing act.”
Town officials, including selectmen, town managers and municipal Finance Committee members from the majority of the SAD 17 district towns met with Superintendent Rick Colpitts, members of the SAD 17 Board of Directors Finance Committee and others for more than two hours at the district administration building to hear details of the superintendent’s proposed Fiscal 2019 budget.
The proposed $40,046, 613 Fiscal 2019 budget shows a $819,683 or 4.06 percent increase in the local allocation from $20,210,262 in FY2018 to $21,029,944 in FY 2019. Otisfield is taking the brunt of the local assessment with a $163,940 or 6.70 percent increase.
Other high increases in local assessment include Oxford with a $207,234 or 5.37 percent increase and Hebron with a 5.05 percent increase of $38,925. Every town this year will see an increase in its local assessment.
Ferguson and others at the roundtable said municipal budgets are attempting to fund the local share of education costs without cutting too deeply into town needs such as road repairs, fairly compensate town employees and keeping the mil rate low enough to keep property owners from losing their homes.
“You get an entirely different perspective when you sign documents to take people’s home’s away from them,” said West Paris Selectman Dale Piirainen who sat on the SAD 17 Board of Directors for many years.
This year, the school budget will see a .39 reduction, but Colpitts said the number is somewhat deceptive because of a shift of about $200,000 that is going directly into the Maine Vocational Region 11 (Oxford Hills Technical High School) budget instead of being filtered through the SAD 17 budget as it has been for years.
The district has received additional state funding but some it has to be applied toward areas such as expanded summer school and pre school, which in turn necessitates new positions, including six new pre-school teachers. They are part of a $1.1 million in new or expanded positions in the district, Colpitts said.
Some officials like Paris Selectman Scott Buffington questioned whether the high costs of special education could be mitigated by bringing in additional interventionists, which local educators and SAD 17 directors agree would be desirable, if funding was available.
Colpitts told the town officials that special education costs can run anywhere from the cost of extra reading help to the high cost of an out of district placement for a student with special medical needs.
“Out of district costs are killing everyone,” said Colpitts. Transportation costs to special school in areas like Saco or even Dexter can run up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Currently about $7 million of the overall $40 million budget goes toward special education costs and this year special education costs are going up at least $650,000 or 10.5 percent over last year’s costs..
The majority of students receiving special needs services are no less able to succeed than those students in “regular education” classrooms, said Colpitts. In fact, he said, the majority of students receiving special needs services graduate from high school and many go on to college.
If the school attempted to stop providing services mandated under state and federal law, the district would be brought to court and, said Colpitts, it would cost thousands of dollars to litigate a case that the district could not win.
In addition to concerns over the costs of special education services, town officials also asked about unmet needs such as maintenance and were told that while some areas such as a new boiler at the Harrison Elementary School are being addressed, others such as the need for a new high school roof are being put off temporarily.
The quality of SAD 17’s education, teacher compensations, and other questions were tackled during the meeting.
Colpitts said the district may see additional monies filtered into the budget as the budget process continues until the final budget recommendation is made at the May 7 Board of Directors meeting.
“This is likely to change and I’m hoping it will change for the better for taxpayers,” said Colpitts.
Community-wide budget forums begin the week of April 23.
Town officials were encouraged to attend their town community budget hearings later this month to hear what their residents concerns and questions are.
“A lot of things can happen between then and now,” said Colpitts of the budget development. What will not change, he said, is the amount of state subsidy the district is receiving.