By Charlie Breitrose
The uncertainty of how much special education will cost the Watertown Public Schools each year has been a thorn in the side of school administrators and parents alike, and now supporters of the school want to establish a stabilization fund to deal with unexpected costs.
The town must provide education for students with special needs from the age of 3 through high school, and in some cases until the age of 22. Some students attend programs in Watertown, but others attend schools outside of town which often have high price tags. This year alone, the district got 12 students who they had not anticipated who required out-of-district programs, said Student Services Director Arlene Shainker said at the School Committee Budget and Finance Subcommittee meeting on Monday night. That number is higher than most years.
Overall, the budget for out-of-district special education students is more than $6 million for the 2014-15 school year.
The state provides relief for the most expensive cases. The Special Education Circuit Breaker reimburses the district up to 75 percent of cost, but the money does not come until the following school year. This sometimes leaves school officials in a tough spot when budgeting for the year.
Lowell School parent John Ryan asked the School Committee if there was any way to plan for the unexpected special education cases and set aside money for them.
School Committee Chairwoman Eileen Hsu-Balzer said the schools could not just guess at the number of new special education students.
“If last year we put in 12 unknown students, then we would have gotten slapped for putting them in the budget,” Hsu-Balzer said.
Town Councilor Vincent Piccirilli said a stabilization fund could be set up for overruns in special education. He said it would help prevent “cannibalizing the rest of the budget to pay for special education.”
The school budget will be discussed again on Monday night (time and place to be determined). The Budget and Finance Subcommittee had planned a meeting on Wednesday, but it was pushed it back.