The growing demands of special education classes in the public schools have placed extra demands on the budget for Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss, who is on track to spend $4 million next year, a five per cent increase over this year.
The All-Island School Committee voted 9 to 1 to approve the superintendent’s budget at its monthly meeting on Wednesday. The budget pays for a variety of shared services for the public schools, including special education.
Mr. Weiss said the majority of the increase can be tracked to personnel costs, specifically the need to hire three additional assistants (now called education support professionals) to the Bridge and Project Headway programs, which serve children with disabilities. The three positions add $190,000 to the superintendent’s budget.
Mr. Weiss’s budget has increased nearly 13 per cent in the last two years. This year’s budget was a 7.45 per cent increase over the previous year.
At the meeting Wednesday, Mr. Weiss said the new staff is needed to meet the growing demands of students in the classroom, not because the actual numbers of students are growing.
“We need additional human resources in those classrooms because students who will be entering have greater medical or physical needs and we need someone to be with them,” he said. “Next year we’ll have a teacher and three assistants in each program because of the nature of the individuals coming in.”
The Project Headway line item will increase from $234,864 to $315,238 to accommodate two additional assistants and the Bridge Program increases from $361,532 to $412,000.
Assessments to each school district for the superintendent’s budget are also affected. The Up-Island School District assessment will go up 4.7 per cent to $846,262; Edgartown’s assessment will increase by nearly 8 per cent to $891,430; the Tisbury assessment will increase 2.6 per cent to $851,321; and the Oak Bluffs assessment will drop less than one per cent to $1 million.
The high school assessment will see a 20 per cent increase due to speech therapy services that will be needed and have not been used by the school in the past.
Project Headway operates out of the West Tisbury School and provides integrated center-based options for three to five-year-olds with disabilities. The Bridge Program operates out of the Edgartown School and provides support for elementary children with autism.
Other programs include elementary and middle school social skills programs for students with social, emotional and behavioral disabilities. The elementary school program runs out of the Edgartown School while the middle school program is at the Oak Bluffs School.
Student support services director Dan Secklecki said the special needs assistants typically stay with students as they move from one program to another. And he said special needs are difficult to forecast.
“It ebbs and flows with needs of kids we inherit from the community; it’s challenging to make predictions and long-term forecasts about who might be out there,” Mr. Secklecki said. “At age three they become the school committee’s responsibility . . . oftentimes information [about the child] is held until the family is comfortable with sharing information, that’s how we make forecasts about who we believe will come.”
There are currently 28 students enrolled in special needs programs in the public schools, the same as last year, but Mr. Weiss said he expects more to join in February and next fall.
Summer special education program enrollment is also expected to increase next summer and that line item also increased, from $77,716 to $86,000.
Edgartown school committee member Leslie Baynes said if the services were not provided on the Island, more children would have to go to the mainland for support. There are currently 10 Vineyard students at residential treatment facilities or schools off-Island.
“Being able to maintain services here is an even better benefit,” Mr. Baynes said. “Money aside, we keep kids with their families and in a home environment.”
Noting that Mr. Weiss had hired three new assistants for different special education programs last year, school committee member Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, the lone dissenter in the vote, asked the superintendent if he had considered cutting his budget in other places to offset the increased costs.
“That’s six positions in the last two years; I understand the necessity and need of them, but that’s a lot of increases,” he said. “I agree with the importance of these positions but is there something that isn’t as important as hiring those assistants?”
Mr. Weiss said the budget was as pared down as possible.
“We could not do the work we do with less people,” he said, noting that several full-time positions have been converted to part-time. “As much as I understand your concern, I don’t think I can stretch it any further and do the amount of work that’s needed to be done.”