Swift River struggles with state’s special ed funding

Staff Writer
Published: 6/21/2019 10:47:29 PM
Modified: 6/21/2019 10:47:15 PM

WENDELL — Special education costs are rising. It’s an oft-cited fact given as a partial explanation for increasing school budgets in Franklin County.

But the state’s 26-year-old formula for funding public schools, Chapter 70, isn’t keeping up with the increased costs. Couple that with the state mandate that school districts fully fund special education, and it’s easy to see why towns and their school districts are chipping away at other budget line items to fund special education.

Wendell Finance Committee Chairman Doug Tanner recently detailed the stress that funding special education places on the Swift River School budget, and, therefore, the town budget.

Looking at the last five years, he’s noticed some disheartening trends and sent a letter to state Sens. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, as well as state Reps. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, and Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, asking they support legislation to increase special education funding across the state.

“Five years ago, Chapter 70 funds at Swift River covered our SPED costs plus about 12 percent of the overall budget,” Tanner said. “This year, they will cover SPED plus about 2.5 percent of the overall budget.”

Swift River School is a two-town regional elementary school shared with New Salem. In the last five years, Tanner said, the school’s budget has increased 31 percent, but the appropriations to the towns have risen by 41 percent — at the same time, Chapter 70 funding has only increased 7 percent. According to Tanner, special education costs have gone up by 55 percent.

“We’d like to propose that, in some way, the state support SPED services in public schools through an equitable, fair and predictable way,” Tanner said.

Over the last two years, Swift River saw overall budget increases of 4 percent, then 7 percent — in the same years, special education funding jumped from 18 percent to 23 percent, then 23 percent to 24 percent.

Wendell residents approved a town budget of $2,822,692 at this year’s Annual Town Meeting, an increase of 7.6 percent, for the next fiscal year beginning July 1. Tanner said most of the increase is due to the cost increases at Swift River, which now has a budget of $2,618,672, divided between Wendell and New Salem.

Tanner suggests that, in addition to the state increasing Chapter 70 funding — as legislators voted to do last month — a “statewide special education support program” be put in place to address some of the issues around special education funding, an idea he said has received support from Comerford.

He also suggested the state fund 30 percent of special education costs in all school districts, “rich and poor with accountability,” which would be around $200,000 for a small school like Swift River. This could be done by modifying the state’s “circuit breaker” system, which gives reimbursements to school districts for spending on individual special education students. Tanner claims the system punishes districts that are efficient in providing special education services.

As a hypothetical example, Tanner said the circuit breaker system would give a significant reimbursement to a school district with one special education student costing $200,000. However, if a school district has 10 such students but efficiently spends only $20,000 on each, that district would get no reimbursement, even though it too is spending $200,000 on special education.

At any rate, something should be done to fix the special state’s education funding system, Tanner said.

“We know there are other school systems who have been hit even harder by this trend, but we also know that they are an outlier is some ways,” said Tanner, specifically mentioning neighboring Orange.

In Orange, another aspect of the Chapter 70 special education funding formula has been criticized — the usage of an “assumed percentage” in calculating how much schools need to fund their special education students.

The Chapter 70 formula “assumes” 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,” Orange Finance Committee member Kathy Reinig said at a meeting in February.

This means the state calculates, or “assumes,” Orange has 22 in-district special education students out of its total 613 elementary school students. In actuality, Orange has 159 such students, creating a roughly $3.5 million gap between state aid to Orange and what the town actually needs to fund special education. Because of the state’s mandate for special education funding, that gap must be closed.

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


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