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BOE Grapples With Special Ed Shortfall

January 3, 2011 by John Rook

The Board of Education is hoping to get assistance from both the state and the Cheshire Town Council as it tries to account for a $500,000 shortfall in its special education account.
Earlier this month, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Greg Florio explained the reason for the shortfall to the Board, during its regular meeting, and suggested that the school system should look for reimbursement from the state and Town in 2011.
“Given the extreme tightness of our current budget, I don't think we have any choice but to begin those discussions (with the Town Council),” Florio stated.
The shortfall is due to an unexpected number of special education students, who reside in Cheshire, having to be enrolled in schools that offer specific areas of instruction. As Florio explained, Cheshire is required by law to provide a “free and appropriate education” to all students who are deemed to require special education. Some of those students can be taught within the Cheshire public schools, however, many students are deemed in need of more specialized instruction and, thus, must be placed in schools outside of Cheshire.
The Board is responsible for paying for each child's education, however, no matter where they are taught, which means that the school system can be on the hook for tuition and transportation costs that could reach upwards of $100,000 for one student.
To help municipalities meet these requirements, the state has, in the past, offered compensation to school systems. Under state guidelines, districts are only responsible to cover costs for a student at four-and-a-half times their average per pupil costs, which, for Cheshire, is about $12,000. That means that, if a special education student must be placed in a separate school outside of Cheshire, the Town is only responsible for a maximum of $50,000.
If a student is placed in a school by a state agency, and Cheshire has no say in the location, the Town is responsible for essentially up to the amount of it’s average per pupil costs.
This is not the first year that the Board has found itself with a shortfall in the special education account, as Florio explained that, just last year, administrators had to make up a $250,000 difference between what had been allocated and what was required.
The Superintendent also pointed out that, while the Town did receive money back from the state, the school system did not see any of it.
“The Town did receive additional revenue,” Florio commented, “but, because we were able to manage it within our operating budget, we didn't approach the Council for an adjustment.”
Asked by Board Chairman Gerry Brittingham when the last time was that the Council did reimburse the school system for the additional revenue received from the state in regards to special education, Florio admitted that he could not remember a time when that had occurred.
However, because Florio expects that the Board budget will be very lean, he suggested that, this year, the Board must ask for some of that revenue.
“At least, if there is additional revenue, we could be allowed to use that revenue to offset some of these costs,” said Florio.
During the meeting, Board member Tony Perugini offered a motion that the Board officially request a meeting with the Council's Budget Committee to discuss the issue, and also requested that any decision be made before May 2011. Perugini explained that the May deadline was to ensure that, if costs had to be offset within the Board's operating budget, there was time to do so.
“If we have to make changes after that, we will have to make some pretty tough decisions,” said Perugini.
One factor that is creating a complication this year is the amount of money that could be received from the state. Florio commented that, in the past, reimbursement was determined by need only. If a town paid out a certain amount in special education costs, they received the money they were owed, according to state guidelines, without question. However, because of the financial problems facing the state, with deficits rising into the billions, Florio stated the formula for determining how much a town like Cheshire receives back may be changing.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that the Town will probably not have an idea as to their reimbursement total from the state until sometime during the winter.

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