Rising relentlessly, special education costs aren’t easily held down — never mind cut — as more students qualify for placement meetings, spend their school days assisted by full-time paraprofessionals, are sent to costly out-of-district programs. Often, special education dollars go to address “social and emotional” difficulties — as opposed to learning disabilities or intellectual limitations.

“This is a huge problem. I don’t think you can throw enough money at it,” Selectman Bob Hebert said Monday, March 5. “What happened to the days when teachers were hired to teach and parents were expected to do the parenting?”

The selectmen heard how special education joins salary and health benefits costs in driving a 4.23% school spending increase that, together with town departments’ projected 2.39% budget hike, could push up Ridgefield’s taxes.

“The mill rate would go up 4.29%,” Hebert said.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” said Selectwoman Barbara Manners.

The projected 4.29% tax increase is without any changes to the $146 million in town and school spending proposed for 2018-19 as of Monday — the first day of the selectmen’s week of budget work. And it’s before cutting by the Board of Finance — which starts its budget work with a public hearing March 26.

The increase is also without any “use of fund balance” by the finance board. The current 2017-18 budget uses $1.8 million from the fund balance as non-tax revenue.

Hebert calculated that $1 million could be used next year and remain within the finance board’s guideline of keeping the fund balance at 8% to 9% of the annual budget.

A $1-million use of fund balance would bring the projected tax increase down from 4.29% to 3.52%, Hebert said. To get the tax hike down to 2.5% with the proposed spending would need about $2,350,000 from the fund balance, he calculated.

Budget drivers

The selectmen listened patiently as Superintendent Karen Baldwin explained the “drivers” behind a $96,555,000 school budget proposal that would increase spending $3,922,000.

The budget would increase staffing from about 714 this year to almost 722 next year. That 722 includes 450 teachers, 27 administrators, 34 secretaries, 119 paraeducators, 53 custodians, 23 nurses and therapists, 10 technology workers, and five operations managers.

Enrollment is anticipated to fall 74 students, from 4,912 this year to 4,838 in 2018-19.

Of the proposed $3,922,000 spending increase, $752,000 is for special education. The only areas responsible for more of the increase are “personnel contractual obligations” ($1,491,000) and “health benefits” ($1,043,000) for school employees.

The 2018-19 budget contains both staff additions and reductions from enrollment decline or program changes.

Reductions amount to nearly six teaching positions, mostly a 4.9-position cutback at East Ridge Middle School, where a seventh grade teaching team is being dropped as a smaller class of sixth graders moves up.

Among eight new “certified” (teaching or administrative) positions, two are math specialists who’ll work in the middle schools and the remainder include three special education teachers, two school psychologists, a behavior analyst, and a speech and language therapist.

Of eight new “paraeducators” proposed in the budget, six are special education staff.

“It’s driven by our need to meet the social and emotional needs of kids,” Baldwin told the selectmen.

The school budget also anticipates spending $2,353,000 on “out-of-district placements” at either private or state-run schools for 23 special education students next year — down from $2,484,000 for 28 students this year.

Consultants

Another area drawing scrutiny from the selectmen was spending for “consultants” — educators from institutions like Teachers College, Columbia, who visit classrooms and help teachers improve their instruction.

In the elementary schools the budget is expected to have “a significant increase, $73,900,” due to increasing math consultant time, and because “literacy staff developers” from Columbia University’s Teachers College literacy program are no longer covered by a grant and move into the operating budget.

And two math consultants are to be added in the middle schools.

“We need consultants to get into the classroom to help teachers,” Baldwin told the selectmen.

In the budget book’s language, “The math consultant will provide targeted, job-embedded professional learning for educators that is designed to support teachers in employing contemporary instructional practices in mathematics.”

“We don’t have anybody to do this work,” Baldwin told the selectmen. “Compare us to Westport.”

“I don’t want to compare us to Westport,” replied Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark. “I want this based on Ridgefield.”

Dropping comparisons, Baldwin argued that Ridgefield is simply short of people whose focus is to help teachers improve instruction in reading, in math.

“We don’t have the boots on the ground,” Baldwin said.

Regionalization?

The selectmen asked about potential “efficiencies” from sharing programs and costs with other school districts.

“It’s possible,” Baldwin said. Insurance consultant Rob Fitzpatrick is looking into a consortium of districts to negotiate better health insurance rates, she said.

Selectman Steve Zemo asked what problems complicate an eventual regionalization of special education programs and facilities.

“Space, and who hosts it,” Baldwin said. “Transportation costs.”

“Georgetown is located where Redding, Wilton, Weston, and Ridgefield all come together,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi. “A special education facility there might not be a bad idea.”