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Special Ed Vaults From $8 Million In 2016 to $10 Million in 2020

Special Ed Accounts For 21 To 22 % of Total School Budget. This Year’s Special Ed Shortfall May Exceed $200K
by Robert Stewart
Although different circumstances exist from last year, the School Committee is beginning the fiscal 2021 budget process with funding uncertainty surrounding the Special Education portion of its budget.
     The Committee heard a report from School Superintendent Laura Chesson at their Jan. 8 meeting that stated that spending on Special Education this year is significantly outpacing what was budgeted in fiscal 2020. The report indicated that spending this year on Special Education could exceed what was budgeted by nearly $200,000.
     Part of this deficit could carry over to the fiscal 2021 budget which when combined with other reductions in revenue in Special Education and accounting for revenue used this year to help close a budget gap in Groton may translate to a $565,000 deficit to the School District’s Operating budget for fiscal 2021. This shortfall will impact the School Committee’s fiscal 2021 budgeting process before it gets underway in earnest in the coming weeks. School Committee Chair Marlena Gilbert commented, “This means we are starting with a $565,00 hole before we even evaluate what our current students need for services.”
     For this year, the School Committee will try to cover overspending in special education by looking at different sections of the budget where spending could be reduced without affecting teachers or the educational program in the district. The budget overruns this year, according to district administrators, are primarily centered on salaries and Out-of-District placements for some special needs students. Salaries are projected to exceed budgeted amounts by nearly $125,000 and Out-of-District placements by nearly $47,000.
     Spending overruns in these areas reflect a transition in the approach of the school district in meeting the needs of students identified with special needs. The District is using more professional staff in assisting special needs students in the classroom and also an increase in clinical and medical staff to support students.
     The report also notes that costs are involved because of increasing number of students who require separate programs from those in mainstream and additional development education teachers to support special education students.
     Groton-Dunstable Regional School District has seen a steady rise in special education expenditures over the past five years where special education funding has gone from $8 million in fiscal 2016 to $10 million in fiscal 2020. Special education funding accounts for approximately 21 or 22 percent of the total school budget. That level of funding is typical for school districts with similar demographics and in the same geographic area.
     In addition to looking at non-educational areas where spending could be reduced, Gilbert indicated that the Committee could consider use of the Excess and Deficiency Fund if certain conditions are met or they could consider decreasing what they propose to put in the Educational Reserve for fiscal 2021. Gilbert was optimistic the District could get by this year without any negative impacts but believed more revenue would be needed for the District in fiscal 2021. She stated, “...We have officially run out of levers to pull and have no hope of an increase in state funding for our District.”
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