Untamable? That’s how special education spending in Darien is frequently characterized, and last year its budget increased by 5%.
This year, the proposed change is 1.89%, with large cuts to contracted speech, physical therapy and occupational therapy specialists.
“Our goal in the last few years is to make sure we’re providing the most appropriate program for our students, and the most and efficient way we think that we continue to make strides in that area,” Dr. Diedre Osypuk, director of special education, told the Board of Education at a recent meeting.
Osypuk said that next year’s proposed budget was created with several goals in mind — fostering student “independence,” decreasing teacher’s reliance on consultants and practicing fiscal responsibility in the community.
Early in the year, the district put forward a goal, to provide a “continuum of services” between general education and special education. This means that special education students should be spending more time with their non-disabled peers in the classroom, and vice versa. The district’s goal is to have 80% of students spending 79 to 100% of their time in a general classroom, Osypuk said, and in 2012, 79% of students spent the maximum recommended time in regular classrooms. A graph in her presentation revealed that more than 70% of special education students consistently spent the majority of their time with non-disabled peers over the past school years.
For continuity between classrooms, both special education and general education teachers need to be aware of all of the students’ needs and lessons. Ospyuk proposed for $49,142 to spend on professional development, compared to last year’s $9,750. The funds would be used to train all of the special education teachers in “very specific reading programs,” including Wilson, Linamood-Bell and Orton-Gillingham; instruction on readers’, writers’, and math workshop models to mirror the curriculum changes in general classrooms; and train the psychologists on the proper way of diagnosing autism.
She also proposed that the department ask current staff members to fill vacancies, and deliver services to homebound or out-of-district students whenever possible. This means that specialists on staff will work with students instead of consultants. Specifically, the district could use their speech pathologist for out-of-district “speech and language” services. There is one teacher in Darien who is certified to teach special education and also to hearing impaired students, Osypuk said. This will lead to less spending on speech therapists, teachers aides, and consultant services, she said.
These new guidelines are apparent in the proposed budget, where several budget lines would decrease in the next school year. The department is asking for $72,903 for contracted speech services, a 72.03% decrease from the last budget cycle. There were also two speech therapist resignations this year, which is reflected in the proposed budget — a decrease of $126,242. An additional $44,064 of speech therapist salaries would be covered by a grant.
Contracted physical therapy costs would fall 62.59% if the district spends $76,696 in the next school year. The district hired one full time physical therapist in January 2012, according to the budget report.
The district would spend $2,438,481 on teacher aides’ salaries next year, compared to $2,514,968 currently. “Modification to this line represent approximately 2.8 resignations that were able to be filled with existing staff,” the budget report states.
Consultant services in operating expenses would also decrease, by 41.25%, to $357,156.
Similar to the overall district spending on substitute teachers, special education would need $73,670 to cover substitutes, compared to $53,000 last year.
Last year the district hired one more psychologist after much discussion in the community, bringing the total to 11. The number of psychologists has not changed, though the split between grant-funded and district-funded positions has, Superintendent Dr. Stephen Falcone told the Darien Times.
Last year there were 10 psychologists paid by the district, and one covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, he said. Next year, the district anticipated nine budgeted and two grant positions. The proposed budget shows about an 8% decrease for school psychologists due to this shift. “We don’t anticipate that it will expire,” Falcone said.
The department asked for a $2,796 increase for special education testing. About 13.1% of students are in special education in Darien, whereas the state average is 11%, Osypuk, special education director pointed out during her budget presentation. As of October 2012, there are 626 special education students. The number of students has increased consistently ever year since 2006, except for a three-student decrease between 2009 and 2010, she said.
The district also has a growing population of students with autism, 9% currently, developmental delays, 11%, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, 17%. The district needs to look at eligibility decisions, and whether the department labels students appropriately, Osypuk said, so that qualified students receive effective services and other students aren’t inappropriately labeled.
Whether the district should be paying for out-of-district tuition is contentious, but the district continues to monitor where students are moved to fulfill their learning needs.
There are currently 22 students outplaced, Osypuk said, and 25 last year. Of the 25 in 2011-2012, 23 outplacements were initiated by parents, who transferred their children to private schools. Out of the current 22, only 18 were parent-initiated outplacements this year.
“Interpret with caution,” Osypuk said of the decreases, “we’re only halfway through the 12-13 school year.”
Out of district tuition “is a wildcard account, things change and you can never be certain,” she said.
To better track changes, the district split what was previously one account into two — public school and private school tuition. The district is accounting for six students that are likely to end up seeking another public school’s services, plus two possible unexpected outplacements, and 5% for inflation — a cost of $515,886. The non-public school tuition represents 36 students, with six unexpected factored into that, along with the five percent inflation, Osypuk explained. Tuition would cost $3,122,248. The district has spent $380,800 on public school tuition over this school year so far, Osypuk said, and $2,710,332 for non-public.
The department would also spend $618,869 on out-of-district special education transportation, according to the budget report.
Special ed transportation expenses, which are normally a fixed expense, will be transferred to the special education section — a $646,420 expense. Transportation is noted in a disabled student’s individual education plan.