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Under Proposal, Local Schools Would Take On Services For Many Young Children with Disabilities

The state Department of Education is proposing to shift the responsibility for providing services for 3- to 5-year-old children with disabilities back to local school districts.

The state says the current system isn’t working, but critics of the proposed change say it could place a larger financial burden on local schools.

Until they’re 5 years old, Maine children with disabilities currently get services like speech therapy and other assistance through a program called Child Development Services. The model is relatively unique to Maine. But Jan Breton, the Department of Education’s director of special services, says it’s not working for some kids, and that’s why the department is proposing that those services become the obligation of local districts.

“The primary reason is we believe it’ll be better for children,” she says. “They won’t have as many transitions. They’ll be served by the people in their community. The public school.”

Breton says Child Development Services routinely runs multimillion dollar deficits, and that the agency has struggled to fill positions due to low pay. That has left some students waiting a long time for services, which she says is against the law.

Some school officials across the state see the benefits of the proposed change. At RSU 10 in Rumford, Superintendent Deb Alden says barriers such as transportation costs and staff shortages keep some students with disabilities from getting the services they need.

“And even though they may be qualified for services, they weren’t able to get the services,” she says.

Alden says that’s why RSU 10 agreed to become a pilot site for this new model. But she says she is worried about the proposal’s quick timeline.

She’s unsure how her district will find the staff and space to take on these new students and get it approved by the local school board in less than a year.

“To say it’s going to happen by July 1, 2018, is really rushing it,” Alden says.

She and other officials are even more concerned about where the funding for this new plan will come from. The state Department of Education says federal funds cover much of the costs under the current model, and the state picks up the rest. But it’s unclear whether the state will continue to pay that cost under the new system.

Rita Furlow, a senior policy analyst with the Maine Children’s Alliance, says she’s concerned that the state might try to shift the costs back to local taxpayers.

“I hope that this isn’t just a shift to the property tax,” she says. “Because that’s just not going to be helpful in the long run for Maine families and kids.”

And others fear that while the state might continue to fund these services, they could distribute them under the statewide school funding formula.

Democratic state Sen. Rebecca Millett of Cape Elizabeth, a co-chair of Maine’s Legislative Children’s Caucus, says that would hurt some communities.

“That’s very concerning for me,” she says. “Because for some districts, that means they’re going to get no money, practically.”

Breton says the department is still working out how funds will be distributed under the new proposal.

“Our intent is to make this as painless as possible, financially,” she says. “We’re talking about how to make it fit in the funding model in a way that supports schools financially. And doesn’t create a huge financial burden for them.”

The department is expected to forward a formal proposal to the Legislature for consideration next year.

This story was originally published Sept. 18, 2017 at 4:37 p.m. ET.