Some local school officials are raising concerns about proposed changes to Maine’s special education laws, which they say could overwhelm their districts and may lead to conflicts with other districts.
The newly proposed rules from the state Department of Education would apply to special education. At a public hearing on Tuesday in Augusta, many stakeholders expressed concerns around one specific regulation involving the screening of some students for special ed services in the spring before kindergarten.
Currently, those students are referred to a state agency, called Child Development Services, which conducts evaluations. But under the new rules, districts would be responsible for those assessments instead after April 1 of the school year.
Officials worry that could overwhelm local staff, particularly in budget-strapped rural communities.
“We do have concerns at this point that people have not budgeted for this,” says Jill Adams, executive director of the Maine Administrators of Services for Children With Disabilities. “And also, what that would say to parents.”
The new rules come on the heels of a proposal last year to transition services for 3- to 5-year-old students with disabilities from the state to local school districts. A legislative committee rejected that proposal in April.
Meanwhile, local officials are also worried about another rule that would affect children with disabilities who have been placed in residential facilities, such as group homes or therapeutic programs.
Right now, they are considered residents of the school district in which the facility is located. But new state rules would make that students’ home school district responsible for them.
Kathy Hamblen, director of special services for the Gorham School District, says that new system could prove unworkable. She cites the hypothetical example of what would happen if Gorham had to oversee a student at a facility a few hours away in Ellsworth.
“I’m supposed to oversee their programming from 2 1/2 hours away. I don’t understand how I’m able to ensure that they’re getting correct programming,” she says. “Plus, it’s going to be difficult for me to go into that district and tell them what I think they should be doing. Because I don’t know their programs.”
Hamblen worries that kind of scenario could wind up pitting school districts against each other as they try to determine how to best serve students.
In an email, Maine Department of Education spokesperson Rachel Paling said under the new rule for student evaluations, “the transition for families would be better if the school started the evaluation process for children they would end up serving in a few months.”
Paling added that placements for students are “better handled by the School Administrative Unit that has a relationship with the family.”
The deadline for public comments on the new rules is Dec. 3.