'Volatile' special education outplacement costs continue to rise in Greenwich, Stamford

The trend is easy to spot: On a chart of district special education outplacement costs over the last five years, there’s been a steady, persistent increase.

In 2016-17, Greenwich Public Schools spent just under $5 million in special education outplacements and tuition settlements. By the current school year, the total cost had risen to $7.5 million, a 50 percent increase. And in each of the last five years, actual costs have been higher than the amount budgeted by the district.

This year, Greenwich was able to utilize COVID-19 relief funds to avoid asking for a special appropriation to cover the difference. But outplacement costs continued to escalate in Greenwich and elsewhere, causing uncertainty as districts try to balance budgets while providing educational services for students.

“This is one of the most volatile portions of most school district budgets due to the many unknowns and limited control,” Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein said. “Ultimately we need to remember that this is about serving students and their individual needs.”

Greenwich Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones said similarly, that out-of-district tuition costs are difficult to project.

“For example: one student can require a unique placement which costs close to $500K for the school year,” Jones said. “This student could be brand new to our district, having been previously outplaced by their former school district. Now that this student resides in Greenwich, we must continue to honor that placement. We also have students who, once they reach a certain age, are no longer able to have services provided in the district as our staff may no longer be able to physically manage behaviors, which can create an unsafe environment for staff and/or students.”

In neighboring Stamford, too, costs have risen quickly.

In 2016-17, the district’s out-of-district tuition costs were just under $17 million. In 2021-22, Stamford Schools are budgeting about $22 million. This represents an increase of just under 30 percent in only five years.

Besides the volatility of outplacements, there are several other reasons costs are rising, according to school officials.

“There are many contributing factors, such as rising tuition costs which generally see a percentage increase on an annual basis,” Jones said.

Stamford Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Michael Fernandes said in addition to the cost of private schools for special education students rising, state reimbursement, in the form of the Excess Cost grant, has stayed mostly stagnant, though Stamford did get a nearly million dollar bump in 2021. The amount Greenwich has received in the past two years has dipped considerably, from $1,206,119 in 2019, to $649,135 in 2021.

And, according to Fernandes, the total special education population is growing as well. In Stamford, Fernandes said there are roughly 500 more special education students in the district today than there were five years ago.

“Special education is expensive and there’s only so much money to go around,” Fernandes said. “So we always say we want to provide quality programs and services to kids and be fiscally responsible in doing that.”

But boards of education and district administrators are often under pressure to curb out-of-district placement costs.

One way to do that, Fernandes said, is to create stronger programs within the district, though that requires resources and buy-in from special education staff and administrators.

“Obviously, you need to do what’s right for kids,” Fernandes said. “But if you create high-quality programs for kids in district, they won’t have to go out. Out-of-district placement is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should be a very small percentage of students. We should be able to educate 95 percent of students in district.”

But there’s a potential pitfall to keeping students in-district, according to special education attorney Andrew Feinstein, of Mystic-based Feinstein Education Law Group. In some districts throughout the state, in an attempt to cut outplacement costs, students are often not given the educational opportunities they need.

“There is this major effort to cut back on out-of-district placements,” Feinstein said. “The result is kids who have no business being in public schools basically being put in babysitting programs in those public schools.”

Feinstein estimates the actual number of out-placed students is lower than it likely should be. And the number of students in need of services is only increasing, he suspects, as districts work to better identify students in need of services.

In Greenwich, as of May, the total cost of out-of-district placements and tuition settlements is $7,594,217, slightly above the $7.3 million the district projected and well over the $5.4 million that was budgeted. If Feinstein’s prediction is accurate, the numbers may only continue to rise and raise further funding questions for school districts, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The other thing we could speculate about, but that’s hard to demonstrate, is we have seen an enormous increase in a whole variety of emotional disabilities,” Feinstein said. “That really has skyrocketed in the last couple years and probably has gone up dramatically as a result of COVID.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586