Redding parents irked with remarks that special education costs are ‘cheating’ general school budget

Back • Publication Date: April 2, 2022 • Education & Employment, Fiscal & Economics

REDDING — Some parents expressed frustration this week over how finance board members referenced the increasing “burden” of special education costs on the school district’s budget.

The discussion came at a Board of Finance meeting on Monday where the board voted on a $23.8 million school budget that would bring the proposed spending increase from 3.6 percent to 3.2 percent.

Superintendent Jason McKinnon said the request to drop almost $100,000 from the budget would lead to the reduction of a teacher position, and funds originally allocated to purchase school supplies and support teacher training.

The board, however, singled out the rising cost of special education in its meeting with the superintendent and Board of Education Chair Chris Parkin, drawing criticism from some parents over their request that the school district find ways to mitigate what they see as a continuing financial burden on the school district.

“There is an explosion of need, I got it,” Board of Finance Member James Barickman said. “But another five years…it’s just going to consume the entire budget because you can’t pass those kinds of increases — we’ve been cheating the general education programs that entire time.”

Over the last 20 years, he “has been around,” Barickman said the total cost of special education services have gone from $3 million to $8 million, with the cost per pupil rising from $2,400 to $9,100.

“I am really eager to pressure the boards of education to find some better solution for how we’re managing long term, the special education needs of the students that are only going to increase because it’s just not sustainable for us,” he added.

Robert Dean agreed with his colleague over what he called the “very weighty burden of special education” but recognized “this is not a problem unique to Redding.”

Special education programs meet the needs of students who qualify for them under 13 disability categories including dyslexia, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and hearing or visual impairment, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Connecticut’s statewide special education costs increased from approximately $1.9 billion to $2.5 billion between 2007 and 2019, even as overall enrollment declined over the same period, according to a report released by Connecticut Voices for Children last fall — a dynamic the advocacy group’s research found led to an overall decrease in state and federal funding for schools and shifted the burden of special education costs to individual school districts and municipalities.

“I am not minimizing the importance [of providing special education],” Dean said. “But we have to find a way to do it that doesn’t bankrupt us.”

The comments drew consensus from members of the board but received criticism from residents and parents during the meeting’s public comment period.

“I think how we talk about our special education budget really needs to be done in a sensitive manner, especially when the district is already below the state average,” said Kristen Anstett.

Earlier in the meeting, members had commented on the declining rate as a sign of progress.

“When we say things like, ‘our special education has moved…in the direction we want to see,’ and, ‘there’s been incremental progress,’ we need to make sure that doesn’t actually mean denying children who have learning disabilities or who require supports just for the sake of our budget,” Anstett said.

Meredith Ferris is the co-chair of the special education committee for Easton, Redding and Region 9. Like her, both her children are diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD and she praised their schools’ support for them.

“My daughter is a straight-A student, and my son could not read last year —and this year he can read,” she said.

However, Ferris added, the experience felt by her children is not the same for others in the community. Specifically, she said she is aware of several students who, after producing a physician’s report and diagnosis on their learning disability, were denied special education services by the school district over the past year.

“We have to support all students — a student is a student, one might need more than another but the thing that most upset me was the fact that they said special education is moving in the right direction,” Ferris told the News-Times.

“When the school gives you the services, they do an excellent job of supporting students, however, my concern in listening to this meeting, and then talking to community members and other parents is there are children that are being denied,” she added.

“People certainly don’t ask to have a child or to be somebody who has additional needs,” Yonkers said. “Just to clarify, one of the things people were talking about is receiving more assistance from the state in terms of managing the cost [of the interventions they need], which people are entitled to receive.”

McKinnon, who took the superintendent position earlier this school year, said the school districts’ three boards have been looking at strategies to contain the special education costs.

Under state law, school districts must provide transportation and tuition for any student requiring special education services that cannot be provided “in house.”

“It’s really important for districts to work together to share transportation and bus rides to different programs and that we are developing programs in house,” McKinnon said.

The superintendent disagreed that special education costs in Redding are “crowding out general education costs.”

“I just think that costs are going up in general and special education costs tend to be going up at a higher rate, so they are more noticeable,” he added.

Authors: Trevor Ballantyne •  Source: NewsTimes • View

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