BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — The Windham Northeast Supervisory Union was saved from a catastrophic budget deficit this school year, when the Vermont Agency of Education announced that it will delay changes to special education funding rules until July 2020.
In June, the Agency of Education announced that it would no longer reimburse districts for certain special education costs beginning this school year. Additionally, schools like those in Windham Northeast that were audited in fiscal 2019 would have faced these reimbursement rules for last year as well.
However, after heavy criticism from local districts and education groups, Vermont Education Secretary Dan French announced on Thursday that the state would delay the rules until fiscal 2021, acknowledging that imposing new funding restrictions after voters already passed school budgets would create hardship.
“It’s a huge relief,” said Edie Cole, business manager for Windham Northeast. “The [new restrictions] still aren’t great, but we now have time to plan.”
The state’s new funding rules aim to reduce the state’s portion of tuition reimbursement for students sent to out-of-district, specialized schools, by requiring the sending school to cover the “regular education” portion of the school tuition. In other words, the average cost per pupil in Vermont for regular education is currently around $15,000, so for each student sent out of district, the sending school must reduce $15,000 from its reimbursement request to the state. According to the state, that $15,000 would represent the cost for instruction in English, math and other core subjects, which all students are required to take.
Cole said that while the new rules aren’t ideal, her biggest grievance was that the state gave the districts no time to prepare, announcing their start date after districts already set their budgets.
“I don’t know of any school districts in Vermont who have already been deducting that regular education portion from their tuition bills,” Cole said.
The original start date was even worse for Windham Northeast. The state said that for the handful of districts who were audited in fiscal 2019, those districts had to apply these funding rules to their 2018-19 school year as well. For Windham Northeast this meant that, instead of entering this current school year with a balanced budget, the schools would carry over a six-figure deficit, comprising a state revenue shortfall of $168,000 and over $150,000 in tuition payments.
“We would have had to roll the deficit into the current year, and possibly have had to cut programs,” Cole said.
Cole said the district can shift its focus to October to prepare for next school year when the rules take effect. She expects the budget will include an increase in the cost of regular education for each projected out-of-district student, which could mean a tax increase. However, she has not had the opportunity to discuss the issue with the school board, who have not met since Thursday’s announcement.
Many educators still believe that the state’s new rules are unfair, because in those specialized schools the individualized instruction and support are integrated into the classroom in order to meet the learning needs of students that go beyond what the sending school can provide.
Cole said that the district’s special education team determines the best education for each student’s needs. While the aim is always to provide those resources within the district, if the district school cannot serve a student’s particular needs and there is an appropriate school that can, the team determines which program is best for the student.
“There is a reason for schools placing students in specialized schools,” Cole said.
Federal law for special education emphasizes the “wwinclusion” model, which aims for students with special needs to spend most or all of their education in a regular-classroom environment, mixed with general education students. The theory behind this model asserts that special needs student should learn to socialize with students and work in a regular setting, rather than separate from the general populace. In inclusive settings special needs students may still receive supports and individualized goals, in order for the student to be successful with the least amount of support.
According to Cole, when the needs of a student require a specialized learning program, the intent is for the student to develop tools and the ability to be successful in his or her sending school, with the right resources in place.
“We want them back in our schools,” Cole said. “That’s always been the practice.”