Superintendent floats shared special education services

Amid rising rates of student outplacement, and rising costs for sending students out of district, Ridgefield Public Schools is looking at ways to share the cost with surrounding districts.

“I met with other superintendents Friday, and that was one of the things we talked about in light of this regionalization issue, what can we do to share services?” said Superintendent Dr. William Collins.

The subject came up during the Board of Education’s discussion on the 2019-20 school year budget Monday, Feb. 25, after Collins suggested cutting the district’s spending on contracted special education services in favor of hiring new personnel to do the same job — saving about $206,000.

It also comes against the backdrop of three separate bills proposed in the state legislature, which could force or incentivize small town public school districts to regionalize into larger, conglomerated districts. The board has said it opposes all three proposals.

Board member Fran Walton said the idea of sharing special education services with nearby districts has come up before, and asked if it is being considered again.

“I haven’t investigated that yet, it’s a little too-tight of a timeline for this budget season,” said Dr. Elizabeth Hannaway, who heads the district’s special education services.

Higher costs

The cost of sending students out of district — which is determined by an individual student’s special education plan — is going up.

Of particular concern is the cost of sending students through programs provided by Cooperative Educational Services, a public education facility for high needs students. Five or six years ago, its annual tuition was at the low end of $50,000, Hannaway said. Now that number is closer to $70,000.

In Connecticut, a student’s home district is responsible for paying the cost for them to be sent out of district to a private or public special education facility.

CES is one of six Regional Educational Service Centers (RESCs) in the state, which were developed in the 1960s to provide some regionalized services to local districts.

“Unfortunately, the funding model they have [is] whatever the state doesn’t pay we are responsible for. So as the state reduces their amount, the cost just gets charged to us,” said Collins.

Band together

He suggested that if the district gets together with other neighboring districts — he gave Wilton as an example, the schools could develop their own special education programming to bring costs down.

“There’s no competition for the RESCs right now, which is problematic,” said Collins. “If you put a program together, and competed with the RESCs, they may be a little bit more competitive. But if they’re the only game in town, there’s really no motivation for them to help us out.”

The need for those programs is increasing.

“There has been an increase in the last three years of students being outplaced for mental health disorders, and it’s creeping younger,” said Hannaway, “Whereas typically it might have been a rare case at the high school level, younger and younger and younger we’ve seen students who have mental health disorders who require more specific, more clinical, psychiatric-based supports.”

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