Sarah Girard has been an employee for Child Development Services for 19 years, on and off. She said things started changing at the agency 10 years ago and she is frustrated and overworked. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Legislature’s education committee and the state Department of Education are working together on a plan to transition the job of providing disability services to young children from the department to Maine’s 209 school districts.

Courtney Belolan, the department’s director of policy and government affairs, and Megan Welter, the associate commissioner of public education, presented a draft bill to the committee on Thursday.

Lawmakers and Department of Education officials are working on a plan laid out by Commissioner Pender Makin to shift the state’s responsibility for helping disabled children to school districts. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, file

Child Development Services, the department agency responsible for providing disability resources to children before they reach the K-12 school system, has been failing for at least a decade. In the process, the state has been violating the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and leaving kids without the support they need to reduce the lifelong impact of disabilities.

In October, 18% of CDS clients, or 550 children, were not receiving the services they need and are legally entitled to.

Lawmakers seemed optimistic that after years of significant challenges, the state is moving down the right path, but they expressed lingering concerns about the financial pressure the transition will put on local school districts, the shortage of early childhood educators and the lack of an immediate fix for children who are currently not receiving appropriate services, or services at all.

Currently, CDS is charged with deciding if and what disability services a child needs and connecting them with the right resources in order to help them succeed.


Officials have long known that the agency has not been meeting the mark.

In a presentation to the education committee this month, Commissioner Pender Makin discussed the challenges CDS has faced over the years and laid out a plan for shifting the state’s responsibility for helping disabled children to school districts, beginning the process that education officials and the committee continued Thursday.

While the department has retained large chunks of Makin’s original plan, it has made some notable alterations, including adding funding and support, and providing school districts more time to prepare. More changes could come as lawmakers work on the bill ahead of a committee vote.

The top-line goal of the department is to transition the responsibilities of providing free and appropriate education to 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds from CDS to local school districts over the next four years while keeping CDS intact and available to support school districts.

As the plan is written, the transition would happen in stages. Those ready to take on their community’s 3- to 5-year-olds with disabilities could do so for the 2024-25 school year, but lower-resourced districts that need time and support to figure out how they can sustainably take on this new responsibility would have until 2028 to prepare.

Additionally, the state said it would allow school districts not ready for the move by 2028 to request an extension.


The initial plan outlined a three-year transition.

Probably the most notable change is that all operating costs and special education services would be covered by the state, decreasing the burden on local school districts. The previous plan would have provided the whole cost in only the first year.

Lawmakers seemed tentatively reassured that this plan would better serve Maine’s children without saddling local school districts with too large of a burden.

“We’re making great strides I feel, and I hope we get there,” said Sen. Joe Rafferty, D-York.

But Rafferty added that he’s worried about the lack of early childhood educators.

“I’m concerned with the lack of boots on the ground,” he said. “Collectively we need to solve that.”

Other lawmakers said they remain worried about the cost to school districts, unsure if the funding model the department has come up with will be sufficient and troubled by the absence of an immediate plan to help the hundreds of children who are currently going without appropriate services.

Welter and Belolan, the department officials, said they are working to tackle all of these issues by being flexible, continuing to communicate with educators throughout the state and working to bolster the early educator workforce.

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