Behavioral health professional Sierra Wilson works with students Friday during a math lesson at Greene Central School. Maine School Administrative District 52, based in Turner, partners with Margaret Murphy Centers for Children to keep special education classes in the district. Wilson is an employee of the Margaret Murphy program. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

A little-publicized change in state mandates is forcing local school districts to set aside thousands of dollars more for special education costs in the coming year — possibly millions more in some districts, including Lewiston’s.

The change, which took effect last year, was a technical one. And a costly one. Students who needed special education services not available in their home school districts would be sent to special purpose private schools, which would be paid for the days each student attended.

But starting last year, the state required school districts to pay the private schools per child for the year, regardless of how many days the child attended.

The result is special education costs for many Maine school districts rose substantially, and many are struggling with funding those ongoing costs as they develop budgets for the next financial year, which starts July 1.

Auburn Public Schools is proposing an increase in its budget by more than $200,000 for private schools next school year.

Private school costs for Regional School Unit 4, which includes Sabattus, Litchfield and Wales, are expected to increase by more than $335,000 next school year. Sheepscot Valley’s RSU 12, located east of Augusta, will spend $75,000 more on private schools next school year. The district serves students in the towns of Alna, Chelsea, Palermo, Somerville, Westport Island, Whitefield and Windsor.


Behavioral health professional Sierra Wilson, right, works with students Friday during a math lesson at Greene Central School. Turner-based Maine School Administrative District 52 partners with Margaret Murphy Centers for Children to keep special education classes in the district. Wilson is an employee of the Margaret Murphy program. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Lewiston School officials have proposed a roughly $7 million increase in next year’s special education budget in part because of the increase in costs associated with sending students to private schools, according to Superintendent Jake Langlais.

Lewiston spent nearly $15 million this school year to send 133 students to private schools, some of which include Sweetser and Spurwink programs.

The cost of sending special education students to private schools has gotten so high that Langlais is hoping to expand the school department’s special education programing enough to bring most of them back to city schools, which is expected to reduce costs.

The school department plans to grow the program in the next three years and is looking to use part of a wing at one of the city’s schools, he said. Then it will grow the program to a whole wing or beyond in coming years, depending on how much space is available.

Langlais said the change in the private school funding model, coupled with increases in tuition at many private schools, and other associated special education costs are all factors making it unsustainable for the school department to place that many students in programs outside the district long term.


However, many other schools facing higher private school costs have not considered expanding their special education programs because of a workforce shortage.


Maine School Administrative District 11, based in Gardiner, is budgeting for a $378,000 increase in private school tuition next year, according to Superintendent Pat Hopkins. It will also spend $100,000 more transporting those students to and from private schools.

The district has 10 students placed in private schools, with another two placements anticipated, she said. Next school year the district expects to have 12 students placed in private schools with the potential of another five.

The rising number of students needing private schools is taxing the district’s limited space and resources — the district has several vacant special education positions it has been unable to fill — making it impossible for officials to consider expanding the existing special education program.

Deanna Jolin instructs a small group of special education students with individualized needs Tuesday through in-house programming at Connors Elementary School in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“Given our staffing constraints, it’s not feasible to initiate another program,” she said. “Moreover, we lack the necessary space to even contemplate establishing our own program.”

Rumford-based RSU 10’s budget for special purpose private schools is expected to increase by nearly 44% next school year, according to Superintendent Deb Alden. The district is budgeting $1.9 million for special education next school year, a $591,123.84 increase over the current year.

The increase is largely because of rising costs in daily rates at private schools and more students in the district attending private schools, she said. Like MSAD 11, the district has unfilled special education positions.


Alden would like to serve more students through in-district programs, but she said she wouldn’t know how to staff them, noting, “skilled staff is definitely the biggest issue.”


Turner-based MSAD 52 started a partnership this school year with Margaret Murphy Centers for Children to house a Margaret Murphy program within one of its schools — Greene Central School.

The program, serving nine elementary-age students this school year, allows the district to cut some of its costs on private school tuition, according to Superintendent Cari Medd. Though the district will not likely see cost savings until next school year, it is expected to save roughly $267,000. The district hopes to expand the program slowly and thoughtfully to make sure students are succeeding.

Pat Hopkins, superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 11, speaks Nov. 10, 2015, during a forum on at Gardiner Regional Middle School in Gardiner. The Gardiner-based district is budgeting for a $378,000 increase in private school tuition in 2024-25, according to Hopkins. It also expects to spend $100,000 more transporting those students to and from private schools.  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

However, the district is still expecting to see a $121,000 increase in private school tuition costs next school year, Medd said. She hopes the Margaret Murphy program will help students at a younger age, leading to better educational outcomes as they get older and requiring fewer school-based supports.

The school district tried to develop its own program for students with behavioral challenges at the elementary school level that met all their needs but had no success, she said, which prompted the partnership with the Margaret Murphy Centers.

The program served nine students this school year and surpassed its enrollment goal of serving eight children in the first year, according to Michelle Hathaway, director of Margaret Murphy Centers for Children. Margaret Murphy can reduce tuition for the school district because it is saving in some of its overhead costs.


Though there are some students in the district who still need to attend private schools outside of the program, the partnership keeps more students in the district, she said.

Hathaway said she knows of many schools that have discovered there are no cost savings to building out their own special education programs for students with very high levels of need. In those situations, costs increased beyond what districts would have paid for private school tuition because of staff turnover and supervision needs, she said.

Pat Hopkins, superintendent of  Maine School Administrative District 11 based in Gardiner, admires the new outdoor science classroom Maine Cabin Masters built at Gardiner Area High School during the reveal Dec. 19, 2023. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel file

“The reality — there is no inexpensive way to provide acute care, educational and treatment programs for children with severe levels of disability,” she said. “It truly takes extraordinary skill, experience and clinical support to meet the needs of these children, and building that, with urgency and immediacy, in places throughout the many rural areas of Maine, is next to impossible.”


Hathaway cites the lack of state and federal funding for school districts’ special education programs as the biggest culprit in driving up budgets. On top of that, many school districts are facing staffing shortages in general across all areas of education.

The federal government establishes mandates for special education that the state and school districts must meet, and the state has discretion in how much fund it provides the districts, she said. The rest is left up to each school district to fund.

The state establishes a daily tuition rate per student for each approved private school, which varies by school, and school districts are responsible for paying the daily tuition rate, according to Gay Ann McDonald, director of the Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities, which provides support to districts. Sometimes included in that are costs for specialized services not included in the tuition.


Private schools can bill MaineCare, if a student has it, for some services, she said. School districts are responsible for reimbursing a certain amount of those costs to MaineCare. Many administrators refer to this as the MaineCare SEED cost.

The state will provide some additional funding for special education costs, but it does not cover all of those costs, she said. If districts reach a certain amount for out-of-district costs, then the state will provide additional funding.

Medd thinks MSAD 52’s partnership with Margaret Murphy Centers, providing services within a district facility, could be replicated in other school districts, allowing them to cut costs and keep kids inside district schools.

Margaret Murphy staff “have been amazing and have fit in well with the school and the school administration, and staff have appreciated their expertise and having the students with us every day, rather than having them attend another program outside of the district,” she said.

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