Schools to shoulder cost of state cuts in special education

IIn an ominous harbinger of troubles to come, the Massachusetts Department of Education informed school superintendents yesterday that expected state reimbursements for certain special education expenses would be delayed and might be eliminated in the future. The notification came within hours of Gov. Mitt Romney's inauguration speech in which he warned of deep budget cuts but vowed to protect "core responsibilities" of state government.

In an e-mailed memorandum to superintendents, Education Commissioner David Driscoll said that current state funding is insufficient to pay all fourth-quarter claims under the so-called "50/50" program. Through this program, the state reimburses districts for approximately half their costs for educating special needs students in private residential schools.

According to DOE spokeasperson Heidi Perlman, the state appropriated $70 million for the program this year, of which $15 million was designated for services rendered in the fourth quarter, between April 1 and June 30. The DOE expects to run out of money before then and does not expect an additional appropriation from the Legislature, in light of the fiscal crisis.

According to the memo, the DOE will try to reimburse communities for some or all of those fourth-quarter special education costs through a special grant program sometime after July 31, assuming that federal and state funds are available. Driscoll cautioned, however, that full funding for this program may not be available in the following fiscal year.

"This is a terrible way for schools to begin the new year," said MTA President Catherine A. Boudreau. "Cities and towns are in a horrible bind. They are required by state and federal law to provide services to students with special needs, but they are stuck with paying the bill if the state and federal governments aren't able to come up with their share.

"Students served in private residential programs are among the neediest in the state," Boudreau continued. "Their needs tend to be so severe or unusual that districts themselves are unable to serve them. Recognizing the very high costs of services to these children, the state has, in the past, paid for half.

"Now, faced with a fiscal crisis, the state is no longer living up to its commitment. That won't make these costs go away--it just pushes the problem down onto the schools, many of which will have to lay-off teachers which will hurt."

Boudreau warned that these kinds of cutbacks, which have a direct impact on the quality of education that students receive, will worsen if the state does not raise revenues to address the deepening fiscal crisis.

"Public education is indeed one of the state's ‘core responsibilities.'" Boudreau said. "We call on Mitt Romney to live up to his pledge to protect such responsibilities from the budget ax."