York School Department Special Education Director Erin Frazier. Credit: Deborah McDermott | The York Weekly

Interim Superintendent Mark McQuillan said the York School Department faces a “big challenge” in delivering appropriate special education services to students. Already, two months into the school year, the SPED department is running a $315,000 deficit — following a nearly $1 million deficit last fiscal year — and that number will continue to spiral upward unless immediate changes are made, he said.

To curb “the financial and personnel problems that continue to hobble” special education services, he has secured the School Committee’s approval to hire two consultants at a cost of $160,000 and impose a spending freeze systemwide to recover some or most of those expenditures. Meanwhile, a team consisting of him, Curriculum Coordinator Anita Bernhardt and Special Education Director Erin Frazier will immediately begin putting together a three-year master plan.

McQuillan said he has spoken to a wide variety of people including administrators, teachers, parents and students, “and I’ve come to the conclusion that we have a serious problem that we need to begin to address immediately — not because we couldn’t wait, but I think waiting is more deleterious than to begin now,” he told the committee at a recent meeting.

The $315,000 deficit comes from three pots of money: the $94,000 deficit that remains of the $919,505 overage from the 2016-17 year (reduced in large part due to a spending freeze last year); a projected $73,000 deficit in the legal services category; and a $148,000 increase in out-of-district placement costs.

Add $160,000 for the two positions and the total comes to $475,000. However, Jim Amoroso, director of finance and operations, said the district has already saved $200,000 from paying less than budgeted for both health insurance and debt service. McQuillan is hopeful the spending freeze will result in recovering the remaining $275,000.

He said there are a number of reasons why special education has been a serious problem for so long in York schools — including the fact that special and regular education teachers have not developed a well-integrated classroom system, that Frazier is being required to do the work of several people and that parents do not trust York schools and look elsewhere. The end result is spiraling out-of-district placement costs, particularly of high school students.

“We see the incidents of special education students leaving the system begin to climb in the middle and high school,” he said. “It gets harder and harder for students as they get older to go to classes where they’re singled out and taken out for special services. This is a big challenge and we haven’t faced the challenge as fully as we might have. So the parents are taking the kids out and putting them in private schools.”

Often those same parents then seek legal action against the York School Department to recover tuition costs, and a “vicious circle” begins.

McQuillan said the situation has to be looked at systemically. “You can’t really just address one problem and then wait for others to occur. You can’t concentrate on the high school alone. If things break down at one point in front of or in back of that, it breaks down. The question is, how do we build services for all kids and integrate them fully into the school system.”

To mitigate all of this, with the School Committee’s approval he is now hiring two people. One will coordinate Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, which are required to be created for each of the 200 or more special education students in the York School Department. The other will be a special education strategist who will work closely with and provide feedback to faculty. He will budget for full-time employees for these positions in the 2019 budget.

With regard to the spending freeze, McQuillan said “we will do our utmost to maintain important things like field trips and trips to athletic events and a variety of things that serve kids. It’s not always easy to carry out a spending freeze. But it’s worth doing now because we can save more money now.”

Most importantly, he said, “we need to build a long-range plan that will begin to identify the steps that need to be taken to improve the quality of our instruction in special education. This is not about blame, it’s about building new strategies for our system of delivery. It’s not a special education problem per se; it’s a systemic problem.”

“We have smart and dedicated teachers in York,” Bernhardt said. “When we honestly examine the data (for disparities between special and regular education students), we’re acknowledging that there is room for improvement.”

School Committee Vice Chairwoman Brenda Alexander reminded her colleagues that Frazier had asked for an assistant director last year, but the position was deferred during the budget process. In addition, there have also been conversations with the Budget Committee about reinstituting a reserve fund that could be tapped for unexpected overruns during the school year.

Member Dick Bachelder praised McQuillan for making the proposal. “It takes a lot of courage to put this in front of us. I 100 percent support the proposal for hiring two staff, as long as it’s clear it’s tied to a plan. And I believe you have that foresight.

“The spending freeze really kills me because it affects every kid. I want us to be able to communicate to the community that it’s really unusual to be hiring two people in October. But to be behind the eight ball in the area of $1 million, and to already be projecting a significant deficit, it’s not the time to talk about Band-Aids.”

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