Lawmakers on the Education Committee have rejected a plan that would have shifted special education services for preschool-age children from the state to Maine’s school districts, voting instead to set up a task force to study the issue and make recommendations by December.

The committee, citing the complexity of the proposal, voted 8-3 Wednesday to strip the original language of the bill, L.D. 1870, and substitute it with language to create the 23-member task force.

The rewritten bill also would provide $3.7 million to cover a budget deficit at the Department of Education’s Child Development Services. CDS, which provides the federally mandated services to 2,819 children aged 3 to 5 statewide, has had multimillion-dollar deficits in its $30 million annual budget for years, driven by flat state funding and the rising cost of special education services.

Over the course of several work sessions, the members of the Education Committee agreed the system was too complex and the stakes – a possible disruption of services to vulnerable children – too high to endorse a plan to switch all those services over to public schools by 2020.

On Wednesday, several members also noted that while the task force would study the feasibility and mechanics of transitioning services to school districts, its final recommendation may reject that idea.

“One question we want to know is, is this the right move? Or do we just stay with what we have and fix that?” said Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred. “We can’t put the cart before the horse.”

The task force would meet six times and submit recommendations to the committee by Dec. 5.

The three dissenting members, Republican Representatives Beth Turner of Burlington, Trey Stewart of Presque Isle and Phyllis Ginzler of Bridgton submitted a minority report to provide only $3.7 million to close the budget gap.

At a public hearing, many speakers urged the committee to slow the process, citing concern about whether schools could take on the duties by June 2020 or do a better job than CDS, which regularly has waiting lists and budget problems.

Education Commissioner Bob Hasson has said the current system isn’t working because a shortage of providers means too many children are not getting services. A school-based system, officials said, would provide services closer to where the children live and smooth the transition for when those children enter school as 5-year-olds.

Department officials said the move to a school-based system was not intended to save money, but to improve services, and that districts would be fully reimbursed.

The task force would review budget issues, along with transportation, a timeline for potential implementation, methodology for assessing district capacity for providing services and how districts would communicate the changes to the public.

At the same time, two school districts – Lewiston and Biddeford – are piloting special education projects, with the intent to study the issue first and not provide any services until 2020. Committee members said they expected the task force findings to help those districts.

The bill now moves to the Senate.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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