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School District Stabilzes Special Ed Costs & Staffing

Special Education expenditures as a percentage of total budget

by Robert Stewart
Last year, the Groton-Dunstable School District was hit with an unexpected out-of-district placement of a special needs student that threw a carefully crafted budget into a deficit position and turned the spotlight on what the district offers for special education programming and associated costs.
     This year, the school district has presented an analysis of special education programming which paints a calmer picture of what the district delivers for special education students and the costs and staffing behind that programming.
     While these trends have been underway for the past couple years they were overshadowed by last year’s surprise spike. Jill Greene, Director of Pupil Personnel Services that manages Special Education for the District, presented an analysis to the School Committee that puts into better context what has been happening in the district in regards to special education programming and associated costs. Some of the data show a slight decrease in staffing of special education paraeducators and also in the number of students served.
     The data also reflect a trend whereby the student/staffing ratio has remained relatively constant despite the decrease in paraeducators and number of students in Special Education. This trend has moved the district closer to statewide averages in terms of student/staffing ratios.
     Paraeducators are similar to teacher aides and assist in the classroom with individual special needs students who are assigned to them. According to Greene, the number of paraeducators in the district decreased from a high of nearly 21 full-time equivalent positions in 2017 to 15.4 in 2019.
     Despite this decrease, overall staffing levels for special education have remained relatively constant. According to Greene, this decrease in paraeducators staffing reflects a shift in emphasis in special needs programming. In her presentation, Greene noted that this trend is consistent with the effort of the school district to move towards more specialized and inclusive instruction by professional educators.
     Greene also noted in her presentation that the decrease in paraeducators follows a slight decrease in the number of special needs students with individualized education plans (IEPs). This, in turn, Greene said, is consistent with the small decline in overall student population in the district.
     In her presentation, Greene noted that in fiscal year 2018 there were 420 students with IEPs representing approximately 17 percent of the total student population in the district. The following year (fiscal year 2019), that number dropped to 398 and represented 16.5 percent of student population in the district. This year (fiscal year 2020), the number of students with IEPs continued to drop and 371 students with IEPs were recorded and that represented 15.7 percent of the total student population.
     School Committee chair Marlena Gilbert said the shift in staffing levels for special education reflects a reallocation of resources aimed at special education programming.
     According to Gilbert, both funding and staffing have shifted from the use of paraeducators to the use of more professional staff and programming efforts aimed more at more inclusion of students with IEPs in the instruction of language arts and mathematics.
     While expenditures on special education remain a focus of the School Committee, Greene’s presentation indicated that special education costs in the district are comparable to other school districts with similar demographics. According to Greene, Groton-Dunstable spends approximately 21 percent of its budget on special education and that puts the district in the middle of 11 other school districts used for comparison. There were five school districts where expenditures on special education ran from 25 to 30 percent of their respective budgets. Littleton had the highest percent of expenditures with nearly 30 percent of their budget going to special education. There were five school districts that spent lower amounts on special education than Groton-Dunstable and their expenditures ranged from 15 to 20 percent of their respective budgets.
     Gilbert believes that special education programming and funding in the district is a constantly evolving process. She stated, “Our district has done well in evaluating our annual needs through data analysis which allowed for restructuring staff and reallocation of funds to meet the needs of our students. Over the last three budget cycles we have been able to acquire the positions needed while maintaining a net neutral FTE count through this project.
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