Special ed aides put out to bid

Amesbury may outsource hiring

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / June 2, 2011

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With school budgets swelling year after year, some districts are turning to unconventional methods to pare down costs, including significantly altering the ways they deliver special education services.

Under a new proposal, Amesbury would outsource the employment of its special education aides to a private company as soon as this fall, initially affecting about 60 staff members.

With the school district facing a $1.9 million budget shortfall, and special education comprising 25 percent of its annual operating budget and growing, special education is “one of the major cost drivers we need to look at,’’ said Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer, who chairs the town’s School Committee.

Under the proposal, which is currently out to bid, the private company would supply aides — many of them, school officials expect, the current staff employed by the schools — who will provide one-on-one services and classroom assistance. The town will likely contract with Springfield-based The Futures HealthCore LLC.

Outsourcing will save the district between $110,000 and $120,000 a year and will contain costs, which have been rising about 20 percent a year, according to Kezer.

The School Committee is expected to decide on the proposal when it meets Tuesday. If approved, Amesbury would join the Everett schools as one of the few districts in the state that subcontracts special education services.

Everett’s decision will save it $625,000 over two years, according to Charles Obremski, assistant superintendent for business affairs; the district has outsourced its speech, physical, and occupational therapy with Futures HealthCore since September 2009.

The district was “looking for ways to save money, and this was one of the ways we found we could do it,’’ said Superintendent Frederick Foresteire, noting that Everett also outsources cafeteria and some school cleaning work.

Initially, 10 staff therapists were displaced, Foresteire said. Now, Futures HealthCore supplies between 15 and 20 therapists and aides to the district every day. The company bills the district monthly, with the cost to the city depending on the amount and duration of service provided.

“It certainly is a way to conserve money,’’ Foresteire said. “We’re very pleased with the service we’re getting.’’

However, not every community has been so eager to change: Haverhill’s School Committee recently rejected a similar proposal, and a Futures HealthCore report analyzing Ipswich’s special education program also has faced strong criticism.

Parents and special education staff in Amesbury also have expressed concerns about the program providing consistency for children.

A report authored by Ellen Chambers, a special education advocate and founder of the nonprofit SPEDWatch who is also a special education advocate with the Boston law firm Margolis and Bloom, states that Massachusetts has been in “serious noncompliance’’ for decades, with the United States Department of Education citing it 12 times in the past 20 years, and an average of 110 regulatory violations documented each month.

SPEDWatch has had a “huge issue’’ with Futures, Chambers asserted, because it has made recommendations to school districts that the activist group believes can easily lead to noncompliance.

School district compliance is monitored with a comprehensive review every six years, according to the SPEDWatch report.

Regulations cover regular progress reporting, development of individual education programs, staff training, in-house program evaluation, as well as, when appropriate, integration of disabled children into regular classrooms.

Those districts not in compliance are required to propose a corrective action plan to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

About 170,000 public school students require special education services statewide, according to Chambers.

In Amesbury, 17 percent of students require special education, Kezer said, which is about 40 percent of education costs.

Futures HealthCore chief executive Peter Bittel said special education costs have roughly doubled during the past decade, and comprise an average of 20 percent of all public education spending in Massachusetts communities.

“We cannot maintain the cost structure the way we have it,’’ said Bittel, whose company works in more than 100 schools in five states and the District of Columbia.

He attributed the increase in costs to routine increases in overhead and pay raises, Massachusetts regulations that make it difficult to change a child’s program, and significant cost structures associated with out-of-district placements.

If Futures HealthCore ultimately lands the contract with Amesbury, 63 current staff members will be replaced by 49 full-time equivalent aides and paraprofessionals, and there also will be three leadership positions, according to Bittel.

However, Kezer said, Futures HealthCore is hoping to rehire some laid-off workers, so the change won’t mean a “wholesale turnover’’ of people.

“Maintaining consistency will be one of our criteria,’’ he said. “There shouldn’t be a lot of changes in the faces.’’