Increasing demand for special education services in Island public schools has led to a large jump in the school superintendent’s budget for the coming fiscal year.
Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss presented a $4.4 million operating budget to the all-Island school committee last week, an increase of 8.8 per cent.
“I’m going to be candid with you,” Mr. Weiss told the committee. “The budget increase is significantly higher than I would have liked.”
The draft budget includes funding for three new assistants, one for Project Headway (a preschool program for children with disabilities) and two for the Bridge program (for elementary school children with disabilities), as well as a half-time speech and language therapist.
“Our speech and language department has seen significant growth in the need for services,” Mr. Weiss wrote in a letter to the school committee outlining the budget, which pays for a variety of shared educational services throughout the school system. In the letter Mr. Weiss said developing the budget this year “has proven to be a very difficult task.”
The budget also includes funding to pay for substitutes in the shared special education programs, money which had not been included in past budgets.
Funding for mandatory transportation services for special education programs has increased from $110,000 to $160,000.
“These are expensive programs to run, there’s no question,” said Mr. Weiss. “But it’s quality programs for youngsters who have significant needs. If they are unsuccessful in these programs, the only choice is residential placement.”
He said residential placement is far more expensive.
“These are quality programs, they really are,” said Mr. Weiss. “These are tough kids who deserve a good education.”
“And who deserve to stay on the Island with their families,” said committee member Susan Mercier. “That’s why I’m compassionate about nonresidential placement. These children need to be with their families.”
The pressure for added special education services is expected to see no letup in the near future. In his letter Mr. Weiss also took note of the fact that a group of students with significant special needs are expected in the incoming kindergarten class next year, and a plan for how to teach those students is still in development. “Our present shared services classes are not appropriate for these young people, who have a wide range of developmental and medical needs,” the superintendent wrote. “Whether we place these youngsters in their respective home schools with significnt supports or establish another shared service program for them has not been determined at this point.”
The budget also includes $25,000 for salary increases for central office administrators, to bring salaries more in line with other similar school districts, Mr. Weiss said, an issue that surfaced during the search for a replacement for rertiring director of student support services last year. Also, some added money will be needed for maintenance on the superintendent’s building and to make up for lost grant funding in the adult learning program.
In line with that, grants administration funding will decrease.
Mr. Weiss said he chose not to add funding for an Islandwide facilities manager again in this year’s budget because the estimated $113,000 salary would have brought the budget increase to almost 11.6 per cent. (The new position was dropped from last year’s budget too.)
“This is difficult enough as it is, that was more than I felt I could do,” said Mr. Weiss.
The school committee is expected to vote on the budget at its November meeting.