School Committee roundup: Special education costs soar; Elmwood proposal moves into feasibility period

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In addition to re-implementing the mandatory mask policy at Hopkinton High School by a 3-2 vote, the School Committee discussed other issues at its meeting Thursday night.

Special education costs rise

Karen Zaleski, the student services district director, noted that the special education enrollment is at 501 for Fiscal Year 2022, with 28 out-of-district placements.

“The profiles of the students is what matters,” she said.

There has been a dramatic increase in individual tuition for out-of-district expenses for each program. The highest jump was for a program where the tuition jumped almost 114 percent to about $250,000. The Department of Education sets the pricing guide.

“This placement used to be 180-day [end of school year], but that program doesn’t do it anymore,” she explained, noting that it has a residential component year-round now. Only two of the programs are 180-day for the school year.

If students need one-to-one support or additional services such as for speech, the costs need to be absorbed by the district. Everything is based on the students’ individual needs.

The least-restrictive environment is the most preferred. However, if the students are not faring well, they may be sent to a public or private day placement, unless programs are available in house.

For example, a student with autism with a dual diagnosis and behavioral needs will need more extensive services. Hopkinton does have programs for students where they receive services outside of the classroom, such as speech therapy, physical therapy or occupational therapy. Zaleski tries to build cohorts of students with similar needs, but if there are only one or two, out-of-district placement is considered.

“We’re faced with the decision do you put them in a sub-separate environment where the cohort doesn’t really match? Or do you place them out where they’re going to have peer interactions and they are going to be able to thrive?” Zaleski explained.

If she does create a cohort based on those students, she would have to do it for all levels because they will need it as they transition through their academic studies.

“The dilemma in Hopkinton is because we transition every two years,” she explained. “I know this is a sore spot, but if we had K-6 or K-5 buildings, you could do this.”

“I think it’s helpful for us to have this conversation,” said Member Meg Tyler. “I know that nationally now there is a movement for further inclusion and inclusive opportunities.”

The goal for that, she explained, would be for 90 percent of students who have individual education plans to be integrated into the schools. Now, she said, Hopkinton is at about 60 percent.

“I worry about this continued segregation,” Tyler continued, “sending kids into an environment that is even more profoundly segregated. Because separated is not equal. It’s not allowing them access to the many opportunities the public school provides.

“Segregating kids, even with complex disabilities, is very similar to segregating children because of their color or their background,” Tyler said. “And those kids have just as much a right to be in that public school classroom and have opportunities — all of the opportunities — that other kids have.”

Zaleski noted “it is a team decision,” made with input by the district, parents and often many providers including clinicians and social workers.

She noted that seven students have returned this year, and the goal is to get students to where they can integrate back into the schools.

The superintendent pointed out that not all of the parents choose inclusion as the best means of education for their children.

Zaleski also clarified that the out-of-district students “are our students,” and they can participate in extracurricular activities with the permission of the team members, and support can be provided.

“We do care deeply,” she continued. “Our goal is to bring them back and to bring them back safely.”

School Committee Chair Nancy Cavanaugh asked if space was a factor and should be taken into consideration as plans for school building and modification come up. Zaleski confirmed that and noted that there will also be impacts on staff and funding. This could be taken into account when planning the proposed new Elmwood School building, she noted.

Tyler called the placing out-of-district policy “de facto segregation.”

“You’re placing them into environments where they’re not around all their peers,” she explained.

Tyler added that there is not enough state and federal funding support for students who have these needs.

District runs at slight deficit

Finance Director Susan Rothermich explained that the district is running at a negative variance of $80,740 “that was payroll driven.” She said this tends to fluctuate throughout the year. Most of the additional full-time employees hired were covered by grants, Rothermich noted.

Another change was in the special education budget. Out-of-district tuition has increased by almost $700,000. The increase will be covered by grants and circuit breaker funding.

The transportation budget for special education will go down because the bus company cannot find drivers for some of the runs, so a credit will be forthcoming. This credit will offset the negative variance.

Younger students get vaccines

Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh said she was told by Health Department Director Shaun McAuliffe that 91 percent of students ages 5-11 have received their first COVID vaccine shot. More than 70 percent have received their second vaccine doses.

“That’s great news, I think,” she said. “And I think by the time we come back from winter break, we should be in a place where probably 90 percent of our kids are actually fully vaccinated, ages 5-11.”

She noted that the new Delta variant has a shorter incubation period. The 15 positive cases at Hopkinton High primarily have been transmitted by out-of-school and athletic activities.

Fully vaccinated, asymptomatic (symptom-free) students can attend school — no quarantine necessary, Cavanaugh stressed. But she urged any student displaying symptoms such as a stuffy nose, congestion or cough to stay home to mitigate the possible chance of transmission.

Elmwood School building project moves forward

Cavanaugh announced that the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) invited the Elmwood School project to move from its eligibility period into the feasibility period.

A request for service for an owner’s project manager will be drafted and submitted to the MSBA.

Middle School to add Debate Club

The superintendent brought up a request from Hopkinton Middle School Principal Alan Keller to replace the Explorers Club with a Debate Club. There would be no cost associated with the change. This passed unanimously.

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