District-wide special education (SPED) programs in the Amherst elementary schools spent more than four times what was budgeted in fiscal year 2021 (FY21): $654,663 higher or 458% of what was budgeted.
In a presentation to the School Committee on November 16, Finance Director Doug Slaughter presented the final FY21 report, which finished with a surplus of $662,541 on the $23.9 million budget, even after accounting for the SPED overage. All other lines came in at or under budget.
According to the written report, the SPED expenses were for “contracted services and special education tuition.” In explaining the overage, Superintendent Michael Morris said much of it was attributable to the distance learning center, which was set up while school was remote. The original district-wide SPED line item was $142,500, but total expenses for the year were $837,415.
School Committee member Peter Demling asked “how much of this is a one-year COVID-related spike and how much is a newer normal?”
“I do think the magnitude is an anomaly,” Morris responded. “It’s related to our schools being closed for a significant amount of time last year and that was a significant cost for our intensive needs population.” As for the future, Morris noted that the district is seeing a substantial number of students with intensive needs, particularly in kindergarten and first grade.
In reviewing budget reports for previous years, The Indy identified a pattern of district-wide SPED program expenses that exceeded budget expectations. Quarter four reports for FY20 and FY19 were not produced, but using estimates based on spending at the end of the third quarters, FY20 expenses were 321% over budget, and FY19 expenses were 237%. Prior to 2019, expenses were under or close to what was budgeted.
Support from federal COVID-related grants helped mitigate some of the expenses in FY21, Slaughter said, however they were not shown in the budget report, which frustrated committee members Kerry Spitzer and Allison McDonald. They asked that grants and other funding sources be shown going forward, to present a clearer picture of the actual cost to the district.
Spitzer also requested information on the numbers of students in the specialized programs but Morris responded that the level of student needs has a larger impact on the budget than the total number of students in the programs.
Providing more budgetary detail has been challenging due to short staffing in the business office, Morris said, who suggested the committee might want to consider adding back a previously-deleted position of Budget Analyst.
Amherst offers three district-wide SPED programs to retain students with special needs in the district as much as possible. At Fort River, the Academic Instruction Mainstream Support program serves students on the autism spectrum, and the Building Blocks program is for students with social, emotional, and behavioral needs. At Wildwood, the Intensive Learning Center is for students with multiple complex disabilities.