State funding for a state special education reimbursement program was sharply curtailed during the recession, falling by nearly half, and only recently have recovered to 2007 levels.
In the 2012-13 fiscal year, the reimbursement rate for certain special education expenses rose to nearly 75 percent, a level not seen since 2006-07. That reimbursement program, called circuit breaker, is designed to offset expensive special education costs that can blow holes in school budgets.
The cut put districts in a bind because they must provide the services their students require and have no control over the needs of their students. Some of the neediest special education students are the most expensive and often must receive services outside the school system at costly specialized schools.
“My special education costs put us in the hole $1.2 million,” said Haverhill Superintendent James Scully. “Had we had a better reimbursement rate for these cases, we wouldn’t have been in that situation. The increase looking forward is, believe me, well received. All of us are facing the same challenges.”
Payments to districts come the following year, meaning the special education expenses from the last school year will be reimbursed during the current fiscal year.
Methuen and North Andover were hit the hardest. In 2009, Methuen received $1.75 million from the circuit breaker program. The following year it received $851,821, a 51.5 percent drop. However, Methuen’s total claimed expenses dropped a bit – roughly 10 percent – while costs from the other area districts rose.
North Andover’s reimbursement fell 41 percent, from $904,423 in 2009 to $534,056 in 2010. Its total claimed expenses rose slightly during that time.
Kevin Hutchinson, the superintendent of schools in North Andover, said federal grants helped his district weather the cuts, which began before his tenure. He, like other superintendents, also had to squeeze other parts of the budget.
“The reduction is something you have to live with,” he said. “You need to keep special education services adequate, and therefore when the monies are less, you have to get that somewhere else in the budget.”
Lawrence took a 23 percent hit, followed by 21 percent in Andover and 15.5 percent in Haverhill. Meanwhile, Andover’s total costs skyrocketed from $4.8 million to $6 million.
The districts had roughly the same number of special needs students between those years. But one new student can mean tens of thousands of dollars and, if he or she moves into the district mid-year, can send administrators scrambling.
Methuen Superintendent Judith Scannell said a few students moving into the city last school year midway through added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the budget.
“You don’t know from year to year the population,” she said. “We thought we were prepared for it, but their needs were high. We had to look at other line items.”
Methuen has tried to provide as many services as it can in-house to keep the students closer to home and to keep expenses down.
The state created the circuit breaker program in 2004, according to the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education. It uses a somewhat complicated formula that requires individual districts to shoulder much of the cost. Circuit breaker kicks in when the cost of educating a special needs student reaches quadruple the minimum amount the state requires a district to spend on each student, called foundation.
Spending over that quadruple figure is reimbursed at a percentage. For the fiscal year that ended in June, that percentage was 74.5, just under the standard 75 percent. That percentage dropped to 72 percent in 2008, and was cut sharply to 42 percent in 2009. It rose again slowly, hitting almost 69 percent in 2011-12.
The state budget for circuit breaker fell from $201.8 million in 2008-09 to $127.1 million the following year, a 37 percent drop. In 2011-12 it rose back to pre-recession levels, at $203.3 million, and to $231.8 million last year.
Local superintendents said the whole program needs to be reviewed.
“I believe we need to take a firm look at what the requirements of the current special education law are and how the state does the reimbursement for that,” Hutchinson said. “One thing they don’t reimburse for is transportation. That’s something that should be considered.”
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