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Local officials express concerns about proposed changes to special education rule

AROOSTOOK COUNTY, Maine — Many local school districts have concerns regarding the state’s proposed changes to special education rule which they say would benefit students in the long term but place greater financial burdens on budget-strapped rural districts in Aroostook County.

The Maine Department of Education has proposed nearly a dozen amendments to the current special education regulations, one of which would make school districts responsible for special education screenings of 3-5 year olds as well as providing appropriate services to those youngsters with disabilities and developmental delays. Currently, those students who are not in school yet are referred to a state agency — Child Development Services — for such evaluations and services.

If the rule changes were to be implemented, the screenings and additional services for those children who qualify would likely require the hiring of additional staff members and outside specialists such as speech, physical and occupational therapists to address the children’s individual needs at local school districts.

In response to the concerns and comments received from educators across the state, the DOE issued a statement Thursday, Dec. 6, stating that the state agency has decided to withdraw all proposed rule changes for the time being in order to reconsider them.

“All of the comments submitted will be retained and the department will continue to work on what we believe to be improvements to the rule, with the goal of beginning a new rulemaking process next summer,” the statement reads. “The Maine DOE’s Office of Special Services would like to thank the individuals who attended the public hearing and/or submitted written comments on the proposed rule.”

Tim Doak, who serves as superintendent for both SAD 20 in Fort Fairfield and RSU 39 — which serves students in Caribou and Stockholm — said that his districts have advocated for the new rule as a way to increase early intervention services for children aged 3 to 5.

“When special education students are exposed to a school setting at an early age, they are more likely to be confident in themselves moving forward, which leads to strides in their reading and math skills and their social skills,” Doak said. “It’s crucial that our services are opened up to the kids in that age group.”

But as most recently proposed, the rule changes did not contain provisions for allocating more funding to school districts to accommodate more students and the anticipated need for more special education teachers and contracted services.

SAD 20 employs seven teachers who are in charge of instructing at least 90 special education students while RSU 39 employs 12 teachers for 215 students. If the districts did not hire additional staff members, Doak said, their current special education teachers would be greatly overwhelmed by the influx of new students.

“All our teachers have caseloads of eight to 10 students, sometimes a little bit more than that,” Doak said. “We would have to add at least one new teacher and more specialists in areas like speech and occupational therapy.”

Doak noted that at least 10 percent of both districts’ budgets are spent on special education services annually. Hiring more teachers and paying more for contracted specialist services would lead to some hard decisions about whether to increase the schools’ portions of their local property taxes or to cut back on funding for other school programs to offset the increase in the special education budget.

Other issues that school administrators would need to address, he said, include finding certified special education teachers who are willing to take on the heavy caseloads of rural districts and finding more classroom space to accommodate more students.

“In Caribou, our space would be tight until the new school is finished,” Doak said.

Much of those same challenges would be present at SAD 1 in Presque Isle if the proposed changes were implemented, according to superintendent Brian Carpenter. The district currently spends $3 million per year on special education services and employs 16 special education teachers as well as various speech, physical and occupational therapists that they contract with throughout the year as part of a partnership with Northern Light A.R. Gould Hospital.

Carpenter said he supports the idea of students aged 3 to 5 receiving evaluations from their home school district as opposed to Child Development Services. But he has concerns about the additional stress that those duties would put on teachers, who typically take on around 20 students per caseload.

“We would have to hire more teachers and ed techs. There’s no doubt about that,” Carpenter said. “I don’t know how we would take on more students without overwhelming the staff members we have now.”

He noted that if, for example, a 3-year-old student required bus transportation to and from school, that situation alone would require additional staffing needs.

“Three-year-olds need restraints to sit on school buses, so you would need an ed tech to buckle them in and help them off the bus because the bus driver can’t do that themselves,” Carpenter said.

Ultimately, Carpenter thinks that the rule changes would benefit students and their families who otherwise have to travel to areas downstate to receive screening services from CDS. But he hopes that, if passed, the state will consider how it might fund those services in the future to reduce the heavy financial burden that County schools already feel.

“This is a good opportunity for us to give students better preparation for post-kindergarten grades,” Carpenter said. “What I want to know is how the state plans to fund these services because unlike a state agency, we’re not able to request more funds when we need it. We have to work with what we have.”

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