EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 11, 2013

City schools come up $750K short

Special education costs trigger budget crunch

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — An unexpected influx of students with severe learning disabilities — including one child the School Department has spent approximately $350,000 on since January — has the Haverhill district facing a large budget shortfall with only three weeks left in the fiscal year.

Superintendent James Scully said 14 special educations students have moved to Haverhill since the school year began in September — the largest number of mid-year move-ins that anyone can remember, he said. The cost of providing school services for the 14 students has been about $750,000 so far — money that was not budgeted because the students moved here during the school year, the superintendent said.

Under state law, public school districts must provide whatever staff and other resources are required to educate students with learning and physical disabilities.

“This is a problem right now for districts all around us,” Scully said, noting that Massachusetts’ special education laws are among the most liberal in the country in what they require school districts to pay for.

“I know professionals and corporate people from the south who moved here just for access to special educations services,” the superintendent said.

Scully said the $350,000 it has cost this year to educate the most expensive mid-year special education student was actually negotiated “way down” by city lawyers. Another student who moved here a few months ago has already cost the district $141,000, he said.

The superintendent briefed the School Committee on the budget shortfall at last week’s School Committee meeting. At that meeting, he said he could not pinpoint the deficit because administrators are still trying to determine how much money is going to be left in other accounts on June 30 — the last day in the fiscal year — to put toward the shortfall.

“We aren’t sure how this is going to all settle out yet,” Scully said. “We hope to be able to transfer overages in other line items to cover some of the shortfall. We are also hoping for more state or federal aid, but we don’t expect to be able to cover all of it (the deficit).”

Scully said he has been aware of the problem for several months. In response, the district stopped hiring new workers in January and stopped purchasing new supplies two months ago, he said.

Mayor James Fiorentini, also the School Committee chairman, said he has been told to expect a shortfall in the $750,000 range. The city is legally obligated to cover any school budget shortfalls at the end of the fiscal year, the mayor said.

“Why don’t we have a plan to solve this here tonight?” Fiorentini asked Scully at last week’s school board meeting. “This is unacceptable not to have a plan.”

Several School Committee joined the mayor in pressing Scully for an immediate solution.

“I don’t want us to have to call an emergency meeting with five days left in the fiscal year and have to go to the mayor asking for the city to bail us out,” Committee member Scott Wood said.

“I’d like to see an immediate cost-cutting plan,” Committee President Paul Magliocchetti said

Yesterday, Scully said he still was unsure what the final shortfall might be. He said he planned to have “some definitive numbers” for the School Committee by the end of the week.

“It’s not poor planning to get hit with a $350,000 bill for educating one student for six months,” Scully said. “The state says we have to pay and the state tells us what we have to pay. We have no choice.”

Committee members said they will look to the city’s legislative delegation for help.

“We need to talk to our legislators about special education students moving here and bankrupting us,” Committee member Joe Bevilacqua said.