Federal and state law guarantees the right to a free, appropriate public education for every child. For 10 to 15 percent of the student body in our public schools, providing a meaningful education requires special education services.
Special ed students have individualized education programs (IEP) that spell out the supports students require in order to get the most out of their school experience. IEPs are drafted by a committee that includes the parents, school principal and often other experts or advocates. The plans may be reviewed and revisited from time to time, but the local school has an obligation to adhere to the plan. And the state and town where the student is resident has an obligation to fund it.
When a family moves to a new town and a new school, the IEP travels with the student. Schools receiving a new student follow a “stay put rule” as a best practice, meaning teachers and administrators try not to make too many changes too soon to the plan as it was developed and enacted in the student’s last school.
For some students, an IEP requires specialized equipment. Other students need extra help from teachers or ed techs. In a few cases, the school is not able to provide the needed support and instead pays to send the student to another school, which may or may not be in the same district. If an appropriate program is available locally, that’s preferable. It allows the student to be home with his or her family at night and included in a home community.
Most extreme in terms of resources involved are out-of-district residential program placements, often offered in highly specialized schools and usually out of state. It’s decidedly awkward, especially in a small community, to draw attention to the impact these external placements have on the local school budget. As a society, we’ve decided that schools have an obligation to do what’s best for the student, as closely as each IEP committee is able to ascertain what’s best.
Planning ahead for out-of-district placements can help reduce the pain to the taxpayer.
In the MDI Regional School System, each school has a special education reserve budget in order to save for unanticipated expenses such as the ones currently faced at the Trenton school. And the district has a shared special education reserve fund from which individual schools can borrow.
Why not go a step further, do away with the separate school special education reserve funds, and instead rely on a district-wide fund for out-of-district placements?
As of 2016, the schools in the district pay a joint group rate for health insurance, creating a bigger risk pool. That helped provide a little more privacy for affected families, as a premature baby or heart attack is now less likely to cause a spike in the budget and be called out at town meeting. A similar move with special education funds could help cushion the blow of out-of-district placements, both for families’ privacy and for taxpayers’ checkbooks.