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.”