A funding crisis and broken delivery model is prompting Maine education officials to recommend shifting special education services for 3- to 5-year olds from the state to local school districts.

The proposal, expected to take three years to fully implement, took many superintendents by surprise.

At recent regional superintendents meetings in Sanford and Westbrook, several superintendents said they support the idea, but have practical questions about how to pay for it, whether they have the physical space in their buildings to take on the new students, the ability to find specialists needed or even have the buses and bus drivers needed to transport the students to school.

“We should have those kids, (but) we have to think about logistics,” said Katie Hawes, superintendent of Regional School Unit 21 in Kennebunk.

Statewide, there are 2,068 3- to 5-year-old students with special education needs today, officials said.

Special education covers a complex network of services, tailored to each individual student’s needs. According to a memo sent out to districts last week, the schools will not only provide the actual special education services, but they will be responsible for finding the children, case management, evaluation, determining eligibility and developing individual education plans.

“There are a lot of challenges with this transition, there is no doubt about that,” said Roy Fowler, director of Child Development Services, which runs the birth-to-age-5 special education services as part of the Department of Education.

Education Commissioner Bob Hasson said the system isn’t working because a shortage of providers means too many of those students are not actually getting the services they need.

For years, Child Development Services has had multimillion dollar deficits.

The budget for CDS’s program for 3- to 5-year-olds is about $30 million a year.

Shifting to a school-based model, where schools already have specialists for school-age children and have existing transportation infrastructure, can increase access to services and cut costs, officials said. For example, instead of a hearing specialist driving two hours each way to work with a child at their home for one hour a week, the student can use the school bus transportation system to see a hearing specialist at a local school.

But school districts already regularly report difficulty finding specialists for their special education students, and it was unclear whether shifting the program from Child Development Services to the schools would ease the shortage of providers.

Most states already deliver services for 3- to 5-year olds through the public school system, officials said.

“It’s very, very frightening the number of students that go without services,” Hasson told York County superintendents this week. It’s not working “in spite of all good efforts to reorganize that part of education. We have to organize it another way.”

Hasson said the department has been working on the plan internally for about six months but is just now notifying school districts. DOE plans to run a year-long pilot program in Western Foothills Regional School Unit 10 in Dixfield, but the pilot has not started yet.

CDS will continue to provide services for individuals from birth to age 2, Hasson said.

A DOE memo to districts said the school-based model would “better address the needs of children with disabilities by decreasing their transitions between programs at an early age, providing more frequent, appropriate and timely services closer to home, and introducing an earlier integration into their local schools.”

Officials also cited “flat state funding, rising costs in special education and inadequate management of resources” for the deficit.

Maine schools are already seeing a spike in special education costs for the traditional students they serve.

The autism rate in particular is increasing.

In 2016, at least 3,280 students aged 5 years and up were diagnosed with autism and served by Maine schools, marking an 86 percent surge from the 1,760 diagnosed a decade earlier, according to data from the Maine Department of Education.

That surge is one of the reasons state funding for special education increased over the same decade from $255 billion to $368 billion, said Jan Breton, the state’s director of special services.

It will take about three years to phase in the change, Hasson said, and it will need legislative approval. Hasson said the department hoped to introduce a bill in the upcoming short session.

The first step, he said, is to create a working group to determine how it might work.

Several superintendents asked how the funding would work: If it flows through the usual funding formula, some high-tax-base towns will get less money, while lower-tax base towns will get more.

Deputy Commissioner Suzan Beaudoin said the department is in the process of doing an audit of school facilities and calculating the financial impact on high receiver and low receiver districts.

“The money follows the child, that’s the basic idea,” she told them.

To help schools get an idea of how many of these students might be entering their schools, the department was determining where the current 2,068 students are located. Fowler said that district-level information would be released in about two weeks.

“The big question is how are we going to be able to do this,” said Steve Bailey, a former superintendent of the year who is now executive director of the Maine School Management Association. “We have limited space, or staff we have might be able to work with current students but aren’t necessarily trained to work with younger students.”

According to the annual report, CDS had 296 contracts with providers, including 100 for speech and language services, 62 for occupational therapy, 39 for physical therapy, 13 for transportation and 120 contracts for services such as psychologists, interpreters and behavior analysts.

Some of the larger CDS providers are Woodfords Family Services, Spurwink and Margaret Murphy Centers for Children. Hasson said the providers would be part of the shareholder group to develop the transition plan. Those providers would likely continue to have a role in the new model, Fowler said.

When asked if it was realistic to set in motion a three-year plan as the LePage administration is winding down, Hasson said the department would “go as far as we can in the time we’ve got.”

“It’s not easily redirected,” he said. The Department of Eduction has tried to reform CDS services at least four times before, he said. “It’s time has come.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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