Special Ed Drives Up School Budget

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/5/2018 12:12:02 AM
Modified: 12/5/2018 12:12:09 AM

West Canaan — Officials at the Mascoma Valley Regional School District plan to present voters with a small budget increase for the coming year, with additional costs going to fund special education services.

The Budget Committee on Monday voted unanimously to send a $27.7 million budget proposal on to a formal hearing. The spending plan for the five-town district amounts to a 1.7 percent, or nearly $460,900, increase over the current year’s, with an additional vote expected on a support staff contract.

“We, as a school district, worked hard to find a budget that met the needs of our students but was also fiscally and financially responsible to the taxpayers of our district,” interim Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said on Tuesday.

The largest spending increase is a $282,861, or 4.5 percent, rise in special education funding, needed to serve several students who recently moved to the district, Business Administrator Debra Ford said.

The district currently is in a spending freeze because it has overspent its special education budget by about $100,000, Ford said. The School Board also has decided to retain $500,000 for any additional unforeseen special education costs.

“Special education funding is always kind of one of the wild cards in the budget and this year is no exception,” Budget Committee Chairman Scott Sanborn said.

But there’s very little officials can do to decrease special education costs, he said. Federal regulations require school districts to either cover the cost of providing special education services within the district, or pay to tuition them to another school that can cater to their needs.

And while the state contributes about $2,000 for every special education student, officials say a single placement can cost area taxpayers up to $150,000.

The district has 274 students receiving special education services, with 15 of those children requiring care outside of district schools, according to minutes from the Budget Committee’s Oct. 29 meeting. Mascoma had a total enrollment of 1,143 students at the beginning of the school year, according to the state Department of Education.

If anything, the Budget Committee worried that Mascoma’s proposed $6.4 million special education budget might not cover costs if more students moved into the district, Sanborn said. But the administration allayed those fears, saying it’s comfortable with the spending plan, he said.

“We think it’s a very modest budget,” said Sanborn, who represents Orange. “It does reflect a small (but) it really is based on numbers that are out of our control.”

Ford said other increases in the budget are either the result of fixed costs or voter-approved contracts. Health insurance costs and state-mandated retirement contributions are both expected to increase slightly next year, she said.

The district also expects to ask voters in a separate warrant article to approve a new contract for the district’s support staff, which is pending union and School Board ratification.

“I think we tried to level fund areas that we could,” Ford said. “There were very few major requests.”

Ford said it’s too early to tell how the budget might affect tax rates in the district. However, she said, taxes are expected to remain “fairly level.”

Ford said the district still is calculating the default budget, which would take effect if the Budget Committee proposal fails at the polls. She estimates it will be around $27.8 million, or about $150,000 more than the district’s proposal.

The budget proposal follows a slight decrease in spending that voters approved for the current school year. That plan was seen as a compromise, struck in the wake of two consecutive defeated budget proposals.

The new proposal still amounts to a “very conservative budget” that attempts to level fund many school services, said School Board Chairwoman Cookie Hebert, who represents Dorchester.

“I think everyone came in well within the parameters that we were looking for,” she said on Tuesday. “We’re expecting (the budget) to be passable, and we’re hoping that the voters will be happy and satisfied with that.”

The Budget Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on its proposed budget at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 9, inside the auditorium of Mascoma Valley Regional High School.

The committee will take a final vote on the budget following the hearing, with its final figure appearing on the school’s district’s annual warrant.

Voters will then have a chance to debate the budget at deliberative session, which is planned for 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb, 2, in the high school auditorium. A final vote will be held districtwide on Town Meeting Day, which is Tuesday, March 12, in New Hampshire.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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