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School Department Will Ask Voters To Fund $725,000 Special Education Emergency Account

Feb 13, 2015 05:01PM ● Published by Bill Gilman

Gallery: School committee meeting [2 Images] Click any image to expand.

Tewksbury Superintendent of Schools Dr. John O'Connor and his team, with the help of Town Manager Richard Montuori, were able to figure out how to close a $1.8 million budget gap for Fiscal Year 2016 without having to layoff staff.
However, they don't expect to be able to pull off the same fiscal gymnastics again. With that in mind, they are asking the voters of Tewksbury for help in the form of a $725,000 transfer article on the Annual Town Meeting Warrant.
In presenting his preliminary FY '16 Budget at the Feb. 5 School Committee meeting, O'Connor said nearly all of the $1.8 million shortfall was due to unforeseen increases in Special Education costs. The increases come as the result of an increase of 20 out-of-district SpEd placements. Included in that number were 13 students whose families just moved into the Tewksbury School District within the past 18-24 months.
O'Connor called the increase of out-of-district placements by 30 percent, (from 64 to 83) in one fiscal year, "unprecedented."
According to Rick Pelletier, director of Student Services, tuition for out-of-district special education placement averages between $50,000 and $60,000 per year. Add to that another $5,000 per student for transportation, he said.
While school department officials don't anticipate another such significant increase in the upcoming years, they don't want to be caught off-guard. The proposed warrant article would transfer $725,000 from the town's Stabilization Fund to create a special fund earmarked solely for the purpose of funding unforeseen special education cost hikes due to out-of-district placements.
"It's a contingency fund," said O'Connor. "The override is for a very specific purpose. It would not be going onto the general fund. Of course, it's out hope that we will not have to dip into that fund."
According to the terms of the warrant article, the fund could only be tapped if all other funding and funding mechanisms have been exhausted.
O'Connor's proposed FY'16 Budget has a bottom line of $39.5 million, an increase of just 1.4 percent over FY '15. The Special Education portion of the budget is $12.85 million, an increase of 4.66 percent, fueled by the out-of-district placements.
O'Connor and his team were able to eliminate the $1.8 million budget shortfall through fiscal belt-tightening across the board and some budget brainstorming with Montuori. through their combined efforts, two line items were found with significant balances left over in the Fiscal Year 2015 Budget. The Shawsheen Tech assessment line item had $99,140 and the Health Insurance Premium line item had $405,000. Thanks to those two surpluses, school administrators were able to re-allocate over $500,000 in the FY '16 Budget to special education out-of-district placement.
However, there was a significant casualty in the FY '16 Budget. Free all-day kindergarten, which had been the subject of a study committee and a recent parents survey, had to be shelved. O'Connor made the announcement in a letter to parents last month and re-stated the situation at the Feb. 5 meeting. In his letter and his live statement, O'Connor tied the need to slash free all-day kindergarten directly to the increase in special education out-of-district costs. That raised the ire of a group of special education parents, who felt their children were being "blamed" for the loss of the free all-day kindergarten program and that O'Connor was pitting one group of parents against another.
Several of those parents were in attendance at the Feb. 5 School Committee meeting.
"What I'd like to say to Dr. O''Connor is that it's sometimes it's not what you say but how you say it," said  Erin Knyff, a special education parent and president of Liam Nation. "I found the comments you made in the email you sent out ridiculously offensive. I had a respect for you once that I no longer have. As I feel my son wears his disability on his face, and he is now a target for parents to feel like, 'that's the reason special education is where it is.'"
Committee Chairman Brian Dick came to the defense of O'Connor, stating that he fully supported the superintendent believed that education all children was important to him. Dick also said he was "offended that (Knyff) chose to attack Dr. O'Connor in that way."
O'Connor responded by saying he didn't mean to offend anyone or pit one group of parents against another. Rather, he said, he was trying to be completely "transparent" about the budget process and the $1.8 million shortfall. (Editor's note: Below you will find a video of the complete Feb. 5 School Committee meeting.)
Following the School Committee's Feb. 11 meeting, O'Connor went further, apologizing for his email and statement and saying if he had it to do again he would choose his language more carefully.
"It's apparent to me that my comments, spoken or written, offended some people," he said. "Based on that, yes, I would re-think (what I said)."
Special education parents did not attend the Feb. 11 meeting, which featured a public hearing on the budget.

 


Tewksbury School Committee Meeting from Thursday, Feb. 5

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Town Hall, Schools School budget Special education

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