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Department of Education Looking to Shift Programming for Children with Disabilities to Local Level

Maine's Department of Education wants to end its current system for educating young children with disabilities, and shift much of the responsibility on to local school districts. But at a legislative hearing on the new proposal on Monday, advocates, parents and legislators were asking a lot of questions about how the new system would impact children across the state.

Maine’s Child Development Services is a quasi-governmental entity with nine regional sites across the state. But Jan Breton, with the Maine Department of Education, says the system isn't working. Breton says it has left the state with a deficit of about $3.7 million, and with overworked, underpaid staffers and children who aren't being adequately served.

"The problems plaguing [Child Development Services] include high rates of staff turnover, due to the inability of CDS to offer competitive salaries and benefits," Breton says. "Children on waiting lists for services. High and inequitable provider rates, and funding deficits."

Under new legislation drafted by the Department of Education, that system would be largely eliminated. In its place, the state would have control of children from ages 0 to 3. Children aged 3 to 5 would then be the responsibility of local school districts. Breton sees that as a good thing. She says local schools can pay teachers higher wages and share staff amongst districts, which she says that would result in better care for younger students.

But at a public hearing on Monday, legislators, educators and parents still had many questions about the plan.

Carrie Woodcock, the executive director of the Maine Parent Federation, told a legislative committee that she and a number of other parents were very concerned about the effects of the new system. Among their concerns was that young children with disabilities may end up stuck on long bus rides, which she says would be detrimental to many.

In addition, she says she feels the transition is being rushed by the state and legislature. She doesn't have confidence that parents will understand these changes, and their children may be hurt as a result.

"I am concerned the current, rushed pathway we are taking will lead to children being left behind," Woodcock says.

At the hearing, some school officials did support the change, including Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray. Ray says he sees huge waiting lists for services locally, and he thinks the new proposal could alleviate that problem.

"Public schools need to be in this game," Ray says. "We need to be part of this."

But he and many others say they do still have concerns about how the program would be funded, how schools could afford staff and the transition to the new system. Ray says the funding shouldn't come from the state school funding formula, which uses factors such as property valuation to determine how much money districts receive.

"We cannot put local school committees in a position to choose between a local budget crisis and the services for children in this population," Ray says.

The legislature will take on those issues at a planned work session on the bill later this week.

This story was originally published March 26, 2018 at 5:26 p.m. ET.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.