South Portland schools brace for influx of special ed students

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Schools are preparing for an influx of special education students next year, according to the superintendent.

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said the district anticipates four times as many kindergarten students with special needs will enter the school system, a situation that will increase education costs.

Godin delivered the news on Wednesday during a joint budget meeting of the City Council and School Board. 

It was the second budget meeting between the two elected panels, and the first meeting since the School Board delivered its own budget guidance to the superintendent for the first time in recent history.

The City Council ultimately sets the bottom line on school spending and directed the board to deliver a flat budget.

Last week, the board said it would honor that request, even though no one seemed to support it.

The board also directed school administrators to deliver two other budgets: a needs-based budget and a budget that mirrors the city’s expected budget increase of 2.5 percent.

School Board members told the council that a flat budget would effectively be a budget reduction, since the schools many of the same fixed-cost increases – utilities, contractual pay raises and insurance costs – faced by the city.

Meanwhile, the district expects to lose between $1.7 million and $2 million in state funding.

Godin said the schools plan to cut 15 full-time positions from next year’s budget, but she would not indicate which types of positions would be eliminated.

The district typically welcomes about 10 or 12 special education students at the kindergarten level every year. But Godin said that number is expected to increase to 40 students next year.

“That is the largest number we have ever seen,” Godin said. “That will have a significant impact on our budget.”

Last year the district allocated $950,000 for about 258 special education students, or roughly $3,700 a student.

Godin attributed the increase to a change in federal law making it easier to identify special education students. She said districts throughout the state are facing the same issue.

Chairman Ralph Baxter said the School Board will consider cost-reduction recommendations from three task forces to close the deficit.

Only one group, which studied outsourcing custodial services, has already submitted a report. It recommends saving $364,000 to $392,000 by eliminating eight positions.

Other groups are studying pay-to-play proposals for school activities and closing a middle school. But Baxter said he doesn’t expect the group will recommend closing a school next year.

Board members asked what the council would do if the board presented a budget that did not conform to its zero-increase directive.

“The intent in the past has been to send it back,” Councilor Jim Hughes said.

Baxter said the city should consider including an advisory question along with the state-mandated budget validation referendum.

If voters turn down the budget, as they have in the past in Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth, the district needs to know whether the budget was too high or too low, Baxter said.

School Board Vice Chairmen Richard Carter repeated his call that school and city budgets contain equitable increases, a position supported by Councilor Tom Blake, who advocated for no budget increases.

But Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis pushed back, noting the school budget accounts for two-thirds of all city spending. As such, she said, a 2.5 percent increase in school spending would have a greater impact on taxpayers.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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