LEWISTON — Why is School Superintendent Bill Webster proposing to cut sports and teaching positions when enrollment is growing by 100 students per year?

Because of growing costs in other places, including special education for out-of-district students.

Webster is proposing a $60.76 million budget, up from $58.5 million, that would raise property taxes by about $126 for a house valued at $150,000. The budget does not meet the needs of students and is unaffordable for taxpayers, Webster said.

His spending plan includes $296,000 to hire more special education teachers and technicians to create a second in-house autism classroom at Geiger Elementary School and a new autism program at Lewiston Middle School.

Lewiston has about 100 special education students placed outside the district. Webster’s goal is to reduce that number and the costs.

Lewiston has faced $4.5 million in MaineCare payments to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for medical services for out-of-district special education students, Webster said.

“We must pay the so-called seed portion of the MaineCare costs for medical services that students receive,” Webster said. That’s roughly 36 percent.

“We have been unsuccessful in having this mandate reduced and are only now budgeting the proper level of expected annual charges, $1.9 million in 2014-15,” Webster said in his budget memo.

That $1.9 million is a $1.5 million increase in the past year alone.

Last year, Lewiston spent all of its $1.6 million in carry-over money to pay for the higher special education costs. This year, there are no savings to help.

“This billing procedure changed two years ago. We are only now getting a handle on it,” he said.

Why costs are climbing is complicated and confusing, educators say.

Auburn Special Education Director Laurie Lemieux explained there have been two changes in how school districts are billed, and those regulations have not been clearly understood.

Before 2010, schools paid a “bundled rate” to treat special education students in school districts and outside special schools.

The bundled fees covered medical services for certain disabilities. It often meant revenue for school districts because at that time, schools could bill based on the disability, not for the particular services.

“But the federal government did not like billing at the bundled rate,” Lemieux said. “They wanted it broken down” into itemized fees for services.

No more bundling meant less MaineCare reimbursement for in-district students, and higher costs for out-of-district students.

For schools sending students to private day treatments such as Margaret Murphy or Spurwink facilities, the price before could have been $100 per day. With itemized costs, the hourly cost for a child who needs a behavioral health professional to manage behavior is $58.60. A child with significant needs may need a behavioral health professional all day, Lemieux said. So the daily charge for that student could have gone from $100 to $350 a day, Lemieux said.

The second change is the “seed” charge, which means school districts must pay for a certain portion of medical services for out-of-district special education students.

Two years ago, the federal government paid for 75 percent of the costs and local schools paid 25 percent. But the regulation was poorly understood. Some private centers didn’t pass on the charge to school districts, saying it was covered by tuition; others did, but the charge was smaller, Lemieux said.

Two years ago, the state began deducting seed money from a district’s education subsidy, which got everyone’s attention.

Around the same time the federal match for medical services went from 75 percent to 62.6 percent, meaning local school districts had to pay 37.2 percent instead of 25 percent.

For Auburn, the seed change meant what used to be a $50,000 annual cost jumped to $525,000.

“The seed is huge,” Lemieux said.

What the change meant came to light for Auburn two years ago. “But our budget was already approved,” Lemieux said. “Last year, we understood the obligation and added quite a bit to our budget.”

Since then, Auburn’s special education student numbers have fallen from 19.9 percent of the student population to 16 percent. “But what we are seeing is a lot of special ed kids with high needs.”

Districts can save by creating more in-district programs, Lemieux said, “but you have to do it cautiously” and make sure faculty are “people who can deliver. These kids we have are very needy kids.”

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