Unanticipated Expenditures For Special Education Raise Concern

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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.

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4 thoughts on “Unanticipated Expenditures For Special Education Raise Concern

  1. I am not an expert on budget, but I have spent the last 7 years working with Special Education students at ARHS, and I’d like to offer my perspective on one factor I think is influencing rising costs in Special Education. Since I began working at ARHS, the following programs have been completely eliminated from the High School:

    The culinary program/classes – the main campus at ARHS offers no cooking/culinary classes
    The wood tech program/classes – we now offer no opportunities to educate students in carpentry/woodworking
    The preschool program/classes – we now offer no “in house” opportunities for students to work directly with young children
    The sewing classes – we now offer no opportunities to teach students sewing/mending skills

    All of these vocational opportunities are gone from our high school – and that’s just in the last seven years. I’m sure I’m even forgetting some of what’s been lost.

    These types of educational opportunities are invaluable for ANY student, but especially students who may not find meaning in more traditional/neurotypical classes. When we reduce options, we communicate to students that those skills don’t matter, and narrow the definition of how to have a meaningful high school experience or how to be a successful student. In my observations, this has led to further alienation of non-traditional or neuro-atypical learners in our community.

    This may not lead to rising numbers in Special Education–but it leads to rising acuity of need, and thus compounds the budget problem.

    These programs or classes were cut because past School Committees approved budgets that required these cuts to be made. As this article notes, “the level of student needs has a larger impact on the budget than the total number of students in the programs” — and our past elected leaders have made decisions that, in my observations working with Special Education students every day at my job, have contributed to the rising level of need among our students.

    Certainly, the responsibility does not lie solely with town officials–public education is tragically underfunded at every level. But that does not excuse the responsibility that our local leaders do have to advocate–fiercely, publically, and alongside teachers and students–for as much funding as possible.

    I hope that, as the budget season begins, we see stronger and more tenacious advocacy to restore what has been taken away from our students, staff, and families in our communities.

  2. When my son graduated from ARHS in 1984, he and many other seniors wrote a letter to the principal criticizing the paucity of educational opportunities for students who were not likely headed to college. Sounds like nothing much has changed over almost four decades.

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