Aired November 10, 2022. When the state announced a tuition increase for special education for the 2023-2024 school year, Dr. Dan Gutekanst expressed his concerns about how the steep escalation in cost will affect the Needham School District.
reported by Yuxiao Yuan
Next school year, districts across the Commonwealth might need to pay an additional 14 percent in tuition to private special education schools that service the children whose needs local districts cannot provide for. This increase is unprecedented compared to the annual adjustment that averaged at below two percent over the past dozen years. The state’s Operational Services Division (OSD) determines the tuition for the private special education schools every year. According to the OSD, this additional funding is needed due to inflation on the cost of living and to counter staffing shortages. TNC Municipal Producer Yuxiao Yuan talked to Superintendent Dan Gutekanst about how this would affect the Needham School District. Q: Why don’t we start with the need for private special education services. How many students are taking private special education programs in the district right now?
A: We have approximately 70-75 students who are attending a private special education school, most of them in Massachusetts although we have a couple out of state, as well. These are children who have significant special education needs, and they may require a program that we can’t provide inside our schools, and/or they may require residential placement as well.
Q: And the district pays tuition to those private programs?
A: Right. In order for us to be able to send a child to a program–the Perkins School for the Blind, for example–which is a private school, that school has to be approved by the State of Massachusetts, first of all, and then they charge tuition. So each year we build into our school budget the tuition costs for our children, and then we in turn pay those special education private schools tuition to educate our young people.
Dr. Gutekanst says this 14 percent increase will result in an additional $900,000 funding request in the fiscal year 2024 school budget.”I’m frustrated as a superintendent that the the OSD unilaterally made a decision without any collaboration with the local districts, or a conversation with some of the representatives that we have on the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, for example, to think through this and to plan for it so that it does not adversely affect school budgets. The result will be that other positions will have to be cut, which will affect other children, or programs that we’d like to implement can’t be implemented because we will have to redirect significant resources to the private special education tuition fund.”
In a letter Dr. Gutekanst sent to the Governor’s Office, he asked the state to reconsider how to implement this increase. “There’s no question that the private special education schools need additional funding and increased tuition to continue to provide great services for our kids, because they’re our kids. My real question for the State of Massachusetts and the Governor’s Office–the OSD sits inside the Governor’s Office–is why not phase in this increase over two or three years? That would hit local districts in a much smaller way, and would still provide additional resources the private special education schools need.
Dr. Gutekanst said he was not sure if the state lawmakers will step in and include some type of funding in the state budget to help local districts with the increased costs. “But if they did, that quite frankly is something that’s going to unfold in the spring. It is very possible that we may not know–even after Town Meeting we may not know. It just takes that long, because the the state’s budget typically is not done until July. By then, if anything happens, it’ll be late to start new programs. We will be able to hire some folks, potentially, to mitigate some of our needs.”
The district usually starts the planning process around this time, so a budget that is approved by the school committee will be ready for a vote at the annual town meeting in May. Dr. Gutekanst said, for now, he has to incorporate this sharp increase in cost into the budget.