Orange: state shortchanges its SPED funding by $3.5 million

  • Orange's Dexter Park Innovation School, one of its two elementary schools. —Staff Photo/David McLellan

  • Submitted photoKathy Reinig

Staff Writer
Published: 2/27/2019 10:51:35 PM

ORANGE — It’s not just rural schools feeling left behind by the 25-year-old formula for state aid, it’s schools with a high number of special education students too.

Unfortunately, Orange’s elementary schools are both, and the special education issue is costing Orange taxpayers about $3.5 million a year, town officials calculate.

The town Finance Committee is in the process of putting together its proposal for the next budget year, which starts July 1. As always, education will take up a large portion of the town’s budget. This year it’s 55 percent of the $20,103,315 grand total — but there’s concerns the state’s Chapter 70 formula for school aid, established with the 1993 Education Reform Act, is falling short of adequately funding schools in Orange, causing a ripple effect that makes it difficult to finance other departments in town.

Consequently, the Finance Committee is sending Gov. Charlie Baker two letters. First, its asking for the Chapter 70 formula to be updated to take into account struggles faced by rural schools, like busing costs higher than their urban counterparts. This letter is nearly identical to one sent by the Orange, New Salem and Wendell selectboards. Another letter addresses an issue more specific to Orange, and that’s special education.

According to Finance Committee member Kathy Reinig, the Chapter 70 formula uses an “assumed percentage” to calculate how much state aid districts should get for special education. The state calculates the number of in-district special education students in a nonvocational environment — like Orange’s elementary schools — as 3.75 percent of total enrollment, rather than polling the districts and finding out how many in-district special education students they actually have.

“They’re using the wrong number of students, and this is especially harmful to districts like ours with a disproportionate percentage of special ed students,” Reinig said.

Special education students typically cost a district much more than other students, so that state aid in this area is especially important.

$3.5 million gap

The Chapter 70 formula calculates, or “assumes,” Orange has 22 in-district special education students out of its total 613 elementary school students. In reality, Orange has 159 such students, creating a roughly $3.5 million gap between what the state thinks Orange needs to fund special education, and what it actually needs, Reinig said. This gap gets covered by Orange’s Chapter 70 funds — this year around $5,259,000 — but it’s money that could be spent elsewhere.

“(There is a) significant difference that this would have on the town even if we got just a fraction of this $3.5 million difference,” Reinig said. “The schools really need it, and the town’s overspending on the schools would be relieved, allowing our other departments to get some of the assitance they need, and the taxpayers not to be asked for even more when were already up against the levy limit.”

Last year Orange’s schools saw some cuts to services, including the elimination of a kindergarten class — although this class was added back with $50,000 in unexpected state aid received after the school year already began. Both elementary school officials and Ralph C. Mahar Regional School officials specifically cited the mandated costs of special education as a challenge to the district.

The letter about special education to the governor, penned by Reinig, asks that the state use the real number of special education students in each district, rather than an assumed number, in a new state aid funding formula. The current formula uses the real number of English language-learning students, known as ELL students, so it should do the same for special education, she contends.

“The problem we’ve all known is that the Chapter 70 formula is not as much as you need, so everybody’s paying more than what they are classifed by the state as capable of affording,” Reinig said.

Reinig said she will be having meetings, acting on behalf of the Finance Committee, with state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, to address the issue. She also added that it may be necessary to form an “unexpected coalition” with other schools across the state similarly hurt by the Chapter 70 special education formula.

“It won’t be communities just around us, it will be scattered communities across the state and we’ll have a better chance,” Reinig said. “The formula says 3.75 percent, but in Orange there is 159 of 613 students (in this special education category) or 25.94 percent.”

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.




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