Special education costs rise for many Danbury-area districts
Across the Danbury area, special education costs are rising as more students with disabilities are sent out of their home districts to get the services they need.
Public schools are required to pay for special education students to attend different schools if they cannot provide adequate services in their own district. A state grant covers some of this cost.
Although officials caution that there is no data to suggest a trend or give specific reasons, some school superintendents said the rise in outplacements may be connected to better identification of children who need those services.
Recently, superintendents in Brookfield, New Milford, New Fairfield, Redding and Ridgefield have all asked for higher special education budgets for the 2018-19 school year.
Brookfield and Ridgefield are also struggling to find ways to fund the current school year’s special education services. Both districts hope to get special appropriations to cover their budget overruns.
“We are not alone in this work,” Ridgefield Superintendent Karen Baldwin said at a recent school board meeting. “It presents an opportunity for us to come together ... and talk with our neighbors about strategies that might help us get to some of the root causes and determine what appropriate next steps may be to help contain costs.”
Rebecca Adams, a senior staff attorney for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said special education costs in general are continuously rising across the state. But she has not noted a statewide trend in the past 15 years of more students needing to be placed out of their home districts.
“You look back over time, I think you’ll find big spikes and big drops,” she said. “I don’t think it’s easy to see some sort of a general pattern.”
The state does not track trends in outplacements and districts decide whether students should be sent to another school on a case-by-case basis, but must honor an outplacement from a student’s former district.
Adams said the latter is more often the reason for a spike than existing students needing to be outplaced.
Brookfield Superintendent John Barile said the rise in students sent out of the district could be a combination of increased needs in children and better identification.
“The district is very careful to make sure we’re accurately identifying student needs and, at the same time, demographics are also changing,” he said.
Baldwin said Ridgefield’s improved methods of evaluating students with disabilities and recent legislation on the identification of certain disabilities could be affecting the 3 percent increase in Ridgefield’s special education population over the past seven years. She cautioned the district will need to do a thorough analysis to be sure.
“There is a possibility that through the professional learning and incoming resources and stronger evaluation, that we’re capturing more children that have a disability,” Baldwin said.
New Milford also needed to outplace seven more students than anticipated this year. But the district was able to absorb these costs in the rest of the budget, Superintendent Joshua Smith said.
“We’ve been able to mitigate this cost for the past five, six, seven years,” Smith told Board of Education members at a recent meeting. “We anticipate being able to do that moving forward. But literally these swings could be any minute of any day. Somebody moves in, some email happens, something changes and we’re no longer able to provide services to these students.”
Anna Quinn contributed to this report.