HALIFAX — Marie Grable, Director of Special Education for the Silver Lake Regional School District, made a presentation about the state of her department and how it affects the Town of Halifax to the Halifax Elementary School Committee on Monday, Dec. 3. Throughout, she put an emphasis on equal access and equity as a means to achieve equality for all students, something she said she wanted to highlight.
But by the end, Grable said she was at the “mercy” of the board. In apparent reaction to interruptions and vocal frustration from three of the five school committee members during her presentation, notably from chair Summer Schmaling, and members Alex Meade and Gordon Andrews, she said she would be happy to provide statistics presented a different way or change the direction of the program if the board wanted her to.
Very early on, during the first slide with significant information, the interruptions and questions began. School committee members appeared to be trying to get a better handle on how to predict the numbers being presented to them.
“We’re here for 100 percent of the students but 20 percent of the students are affecting the budget this much, and there’s nothing we can do about it, frankly,” said Meade.
Grable noted that special education is required by law, and is a “means of specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.” The SLRSD is also responsible for transportation costs for students receiving services outside of Halifax, she said.
This access to education for some students is met in-house, for other students requires placement in programs at other schools in the district or programs out-of-district, including collaboratives and alternative schools. Tuition for these programs can be quite costly, according to Grable’s presentation.
Special education budgets are notoriously difficult to anticipate because special education is mandatory, can be costly, and the cost is subject to the needs of the students currently in the district.
She discussed certain disability types that Massachusetts regulations require educators provide modifications for, including: autism, developmental delay, intellectual impairment, sensory impairment, neurological impairment, emotional impairment, communication impairment, physical impairment, health impairment and specific learning disability.
But Schmaling stated that she didn’t think that emotional impairment belonged on the list of disability classifications, and Meade agreed.
Both indicated they did not think that the public’s perception of disability included “emotional impairment.”
Emotional impairment includes, according to state and federal law, such disabilites as, “an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors; an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers; inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances; a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.”
There are 128 students from Halifax, aged 3-22, receiving special education services this year, stated Grable, up from 118 in 2015. For those students receiving services at HES, that represents close to 20 percent of the school’s student population, according to some quick math done by the board (the state average is about 17 percent, said SLRSD Superintendent Joy Blackwood). But, out-of-district placements are down from 26 to 16 from 2016.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Grable. “My goal is to have the most students receiving their education in the least restrictive setting.”
The board wanted more historical data to help better budget for special education. But Grable said she didn’t think that would help much.
“It’s hard [to predict funding] because it’s such a moving target,” said Blackwood.
Schmaling and Blackwood pointed out that just one student moving into the district could cost $100,000 or one moving out could save the district $100,000 (hypothetically).
But in the end, the board appeared glad to hear Grable’s report, however they felt about it. “It’s super awesome that you came in,” said Schmaling.