Saturday January 12, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

SHAFTSBURY -- An 8.6 percent increase directly tied to rising special education needs in the most recent Shaftsbury School District budget draft had some parents questioning the school board Wednesday as to whether other children are getting shortchanged.

Shaftsbury is considering a fiscal year 2014 expenditure budget that is up $400,00, or 15 percent, to $3.15 million. Of that increase, $270,000 comes from the special education line of the budget. Those additional expenditures would increase special education expenses in Shaftsbury by 49 percent up to $831,000.

Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Special Education Director Kathy Buck explained the costs are largely out of the board's control as more children with special needs have come into the district and federal and state law requires services for those children.

With fewer than 40 children receiving special education services this year, Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke estimated the district spends on average $32,000 per student on special education, while other children cost about $10,000 to educate.

The increased spending on special education brought some residents to Wednesday's meeting who wanted an explanation for the increase. No one suggested cutting the special education expenses, but there were comments that children without disabilities may be getting overlooked or held back.

"I just would like to know philosophically why one group of people, whether they're special ed kids or not, are getting $30,000 per pupil ... and kids who are not are getting ($10,000). How is that fair?" parent Kristen Zens asked the board.

"How come my kid doesn't get all the money a special ed kid (does)? It angers me to think a whole population of people are getting everything and a whole population of people are getting nothing," Zens said. "I want my kid to be, not with difficulties, but I want them to have everything a special ed kid has."

Buck explained that the services schools provide children with special needs are not aimed to give them an advantage over children without handicaps, but instead to give them an equal opportunity.

"All special ed students want, and the parents of the special ed students, they want them to get the same education as the typical students. They're not getting more. We're trying to help them get the same. It just costs more," Buck explained.

While children in the district with special needs average $32,000 to educate, Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke said the actual expense varies from slightly more than regular education students to what can be more than $100,000 depending on a child's needs and their individualized educational plan (IEP). Pembroke also said the state reimburses approximately 50 percent of all special education costs, so taxpayers actually only spend about $16,000 on average for children on special education.

Zens made clear she does not want to see services reduced for children who need them, but said more money should be spent on other children, too. She also noted that there are laws that advocate for children with special needs but not for other children, which gives parents few options when advocating for their own children. "I think everybody should be included ... but it seems weighted to me in one direction," she said. "I just think it's not fair right now."

Zens and another parent also questioned the laws that students have the right to be educated in the least restrictive environment where they will benefit from specialized instruction. A scenario of a student holding others back was brought up, which Zens said she believes has happened in Shaftsbury, claiming the "bar has been lowered" for other children in the class.

"When a teacher is being told to help more kids in the classroom than she's ever had before, it's natural that the kids who are more capable are not being given the attention that they need," Zens said. "I am not saying special ed should be cut ... I'm here to speak on behalf of people, kids, parents whose kids are not special ed, and I feel the bar is being lowered."

Other parents voiced different views, including Megan Donkers.

"I think that our kids here get what they need. They're small classroom sizes, it's a small community, and maybe if you went somewhere that didn't have what we have you would understand how significant our education here (is), and what a great school this is," Donkers said. "I want my kids to be with special needs kids because, guess what, everybody in the world isn't the same. And there's tolerance (and) compassion (that are) a part of the education piece that everybody needs to think about ... and I want my kids to be with kids that are different."

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi