Special-education costs are due to rise by $1 million or more in some local school districts next year, further straining budgets at a time when many face a gloomy financial outlook.
Saugus will have to increase special-education spending by $1.1 million, an 18 percent hike over this year's $3.4 million appropriation. Lynn, the largest school district in the region, expects a $1 million increase. In the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District - where a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote is planned next month -the special-education bill is also due to rise $1.1 million, a 20.6 percent increase over this year.
Melrose has earmarked $905,650 in a $27 million budget. In Danvers, a $837,722 hike accounts for almost half of a 5.9 percent total increase in a proposed $30 million school budget. The increase prompted officials there to take $275,000 from an education reserve fund to help absorb the hike.
"It's a significant increase," said Lisa Dana, the Danvers superintendent. "We felt this was the year we had to access that reserve fund, so that we could balance our budget."
Saugus Superintendent Keith Manville said the $1.1 million increase is the largest of any line item in a $28 million school budget request. "The only thing that could grow larger is energy costs," he said.
Higher transportation and tuition costs at private schools are the primary cause of the budget hikes. State law requires a public school district to educate disabled students from ages 3 to 22 who have not yet earned a high school diploma or equivalent. If a school district can't meet students' needs, they must be placed outside the district. The cost of a private placement can run as high as $90,000 per child, plus transportation costs, educators said.
In the North region, schools serving special-needs students include the Landmark School in Beverly and the North Shore Education Consortium, also located in Beverly, which serves 17 public school districts across the region.
Special-education costs have climbed steadily over the last 10 to 15 years as more severely disabled students have enrolled in public school systems. The difference now is that spiraling costs come as school districts grapple with less education funding from the state and federal governments and their local communities, educators said.
"New revenues are so limited that most of the districts are looking at only a 2 to 3 percent increase," said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, which is updating a study of special-education costs written a few years ago. "The reality is that special-education costs are going up much higher than that."
The Masconomet Regional School District in Topsfield is facing a 22.7 percent increase, or $350,000, in special-education costs next year. The hike is about twice as much as the 11.5 percent average increase over the last five years, officials said.
"We have what we call 'budget busters,' " said Claire Sheff Kohn, superintendent of the grade 7-12 school district, which serves Boxford, Middleton, and Topsfield. "Special education is one of them."
School districts rely in part on federal grants and state reimbursement to help cover costs. Massachusetts partially reimburses school districts for private tuition costs, but the district must spend at least four times the amount per pupil on special-education students to qualify for reimbursement. For example, if a school district spends $10,000 per pupil it would have to spend at least $40,000 on a special-needs student. But if it costs $60,000 to send a special-needs student to a private school, then the district would be reimbursed 75 percent of the $20,000 difference between the two amounts. "They don't give you the whole thing," Manville said. "If you don't spend more than four times the amount on them, you're out of luck. You'd get no reimbursement."
Unpredictable enrollment figures make special-education costs tricky to budget. Students phase in and out of programs or get diagnosed with a learning disability in midyear, adding cost to a budget.
"You cross your fingers every year," said Diana Minton, special-education director in Ipswich. "The addition of just one student can throw your whole budget off."
Ipswich next year expects special-education costs to total $4.4 million, about the same as this year, because one severely disabled student is no longer in the system, Minton said.
In Amesbury, special-education costs next year are expected to be $5.7 million, about the same as this year. But costs this year increased $1.5 million, The district estimates it will receive $400,000 in state reimbursement money and a $1 million federal grant to pay the bill, Superintendent Charles Chaurette said.
Special-education students often have a longer school day and some attend school for as many as 220 days per year. With staffing ratios as low as one-to-one for the most disabled students, labor costs are higher, said James Major, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Approved Private Schools, a nonprofit that represents 180 private schools and programs that contract with the state to provide out-of-district special education.
But all schools, public and private, now also serve more severely disabled students than they did in 1975, when the state's special-education law was written, he noted.
"Kids then weren't as disabled as they are now," Major said. "Back then, students weren't surviving low birth weights. The survival rate now is astonishingly higher, which is absolutely a good thing. It also means that the children are more dramatically disabled."
Kathy McCabe can be reached at email@example.com.