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School Budget Imperils Special Ed Programs

Reeling from losses in state aid, the school district administration is proposing to scale back special ed programming.

Special education and preschool will be casualties of school budget cuts, but it's too soon to tell the full impact until the Board of Education decides precisely how to spend nearly $112 million to educate our children.

Dollar figures will be presented at a budget workshop next Monday night. The workshop is open to the public and comes at a time when state cutbacks are playing havoc with local numbers.

The district spends about $13,139 per student (according to state Department of Education figures) and has been especially focused in recent years on helping kids with learning disabilities, especially children with disorders that can make reading, writing or organizing materials more of a challenge for them than for other classmates.

One in every seven children in the school district is categorized as having special needs. They include a wide range of learning disabilities, autistic spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD, visual and hearing impairments and cerebral palsy. Under federal law, generally known by its acronym IDEA, the local school district is obligated to assess children and provide an "appropriate" education. Congress has never fulfilled its promise to fund 40 percent of the cost.

Federal money did come this year—$1.5 million in stimulus funding—to jumpstart the inclusion program. Twenty-nine new teachers were hired and six classes added for students who—because of their disabilities—would have attended school in other towns. Inclusion is what many families want, and is also less expensive than spiraling out-of-district costs.

The district made a giant leap when it partnered a special education teacher with a regular ed teacher in one classroom per grade level in every elementary school. Children with learning disabilities are able to remain in the classroom throughout the school day, rather than leave the room during the day for the so-called "pull-out" programs for basic skills.

School officials concede the initiative may have been too much, too fast. "It's going to be hard to promise we can sustain everything we've started so far," Superintendent Brian Osborne told 70 parents attending the February meeting of the Special Education Parent-Teacher Organization, a district-wide group that advocates and supports children with special needs.

This past Monday night, the superintendent reviewed the financial crisis at the Board of Education meeting. The district has lost $2.2 million in state funding and suspended hiring, conference travel and purchases for some supplies. Some field trips may also be altered or scaled back as the district reels from the impact of the governor's executive order that denies aid to school districts with surplus funds.

"I am not a miracle worker," Osborne said of the budget challenges confronting many schools. In our district, Osborne has strongly implied that Pre-K will return to half day, and the inclusion program changed. It seems to mean that instead of having a full-time special ed teacher in each inclusion room, the special ed teacher will just come in for some subjects. We don't know yet how many special ed jobs will be lost and how the program will differ from school to school.

Spending on special education has clearly been the right thing to do. Osborne has repeatedly said that the district is committed to educating students with IEPs alongside their peers as much as possible. The problem is finding the money to continue picking up the tab.

It was disheartening on Monday night that Board members failed to express concern for the significant scaling back of special education and Pre-K. Board members questioned how spending less on textbooks and slowing down the technology plan will hurt the classroom. The single mention of special ed came from Richard Laine, who said the BOE has been "overly generous" to special education.

That's infuriating to parents of children with special needs. And while Osborne has repeatedly expressed his support, the proposed cutbacks seem like a step back from the momentum and gains made in special education. It's a shame that finding ways to balance the school budget will fall on the backs of its most vulnerable students.

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