New changes from state 'recipe for disaster' for schools

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Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said changes in state education policy, including consolidating services or losing state money, and a proposal to have schools start providing special education to children ages 3 to 5, would overload schools and cost local taxpayers.

LEWISTON — Two education policy changes from the state — one already law, the other a proposal — will be impossible to carry out and a “recipe for disaster,” the Lewiston School Committee was told Monday night.

One change is a proposal in the upcoming legislative session that local school districts would start providing special education to children ages 3-5. Those services are now provided by the state’s Child Development Services.

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CDS is underfunded and understaffed, said Pamela Emery, Lewiston’s director of special education.

If the proposal is passed, it would mean Lewiston and other districts “would provide case management, evaluations, determining eligibility, specially designed instruction, speech, OT, PT, clinical services and any technology that we need to purchase for our students,” Emery said.

Transferring care of young special needs preschoolers would add hundreds of students to Lewiston’s enrollment, and send the special ed budget soaring, Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said.

New special-purpose preschools would become the responsibility of public schools, Emery said.

There are multiple concerns, Webster said. One is that CDS is severely underfunded and understaffed.

The proposal “is a recipe for disaster,” Webster said. Before making a switch CDS’s funding problem should be corrected, “otherwise it’s going to be on the backs of schools.”

Lewiston’s special ed classes are already full without adding more younger children, according to school officials. The district has struggled to keep up and continually hire more teachers with the growing number of students showing up.

The Maine Department of Education’s proposal says that schools already provide those services now, but most districts do not provide for students that young, Emery said.

Emery said she attended a meeting hosted by the Maine Department of Education to learn more.

“We were asked for more questions and concerns that we have for bringing this into the schools,” she said. “There weren’t any answers.”

School Committee members were upset by what they heard.

“This is a bait and switch,” said Tom Shannon, adding the state would add more demands of schools then not pay for more special ed services for two years, which is now the lag time. “Sad, sad, sad.”

New consolidation law

The second change, which is already law, says school districts must consolidate services or lose thousands of dollars in state money for education.

For Lewiston, the loss could be $700,000 in 2019, Webster said. But the way districts would have to work together would not work or save money, officials believe.

The law says districts must create new entities to come up with programs or services that can be shared. The combined programs would then to be approved by the Maine Department of Education, then approved by local voters.

“It would be like creating a whole new central office that’s going to provide the level of services for all the members of the districts,” Webster said. It would take tremendous time and energy to create the new layers of bureaucracy, get state approvals and then approvals from voters, he said.

Elaine Runyon, chief administrative officer for the Lewiston School Department, said the law isn’t doable.

The law says districts are to combine services but retain individuality, she said. When districts have to work with different labor contracts, different human resources departments, when there’s “no streamlining of organizations, it’s impossible to become more efficient,” Runyon said.

The new law won’t save any money, “except that you will lose (state) money if you don’t do it,” Runyon said.

“That’s the stick,” she said. “This is a stick. This is not a carrot.”

As legislators voted on the state budget in early July, they approved the law but “didn’t know what they were voting on,” Webster said.

It’s only been in the past few weeks that details of the new law have come about from the Department of Education.

Webster said he asked the Education Commissioner Bob Hasson that if Lewiston-Auburn voters approve the merger proposal on Nov. 7 to combine cities, would that meet the law?

“He was not prepared to say,” Webster said.

“Talk about not knowing your subject,” Committee member Paul St. Pierre said.

Webster said he planned to enlist help from local legislators to look at the law.

School Committee Chairwoman Linda Scott urged him to do whatever it takes to get help not just from local legislators, but also regional lawmakers.

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