AUBURN — Auburn schools have 640 special education students representing 11 different disabilities, Special Education Director Laurie Lemieux told the School Committee on Wednesday night. They represent 17.81 percent of the student population.

Her report was in response to committee members asking about rising costs. The $700,000 increase for special education was the biggest single increase in the budget for 2015-16.

Federal law mandates that each child get a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment, Lemieux said. Some spend part of their days in regular classrooms, while others have disabilities so severe they need placement in private schools, such as Margaret Murphy.

In the past year, 24 special ed students graduated and 42 went into regular education, Lemieux said.

Auburn schools have several in-house programs to help keep students in the district.

This school year, Auburn had 51 students in out-of-district private programs. Tuition ranged from $33,735 to $52,662 per student. Tuition is set by the state during the summer.

“When I build the budget in the summer I don’t know the changes until the fall,” Lemieux said. “Often times they back it to July 1. We had one school go up $60 a day. Another went up $26 a day. This is the system.”

Worse are changes in the past five years in so-called Medicaid “seed” reimbursements for specialized therapy services, “a big ticket item,” Lemieux said.

Five years ago those clinical services were bundled with tuition. Now schools have to share the costs with the federal government.

Now, Auburn pays 38.45 percent of “seed” money for therapy services, while the federal government pays 61.55 percent.

That means big bills to local school districts. The costs for therapy and behavioral services “went from nothing to over $800,000 we’re paying out. It’s huge,” Lemieux said. “We’re now having to spend a lot of money for Medicaid seed. It’s very concerning.”

City Councilor Mary Lafontaine asked what is being done to address that.

Lemieux said she serves on a state committee that has recommended changes in federal Medicaid rules that would allow school departments to bill Medicaid for more services schools are providing. “But what I’ve found it’s a very long process.”

That same committee also watches for changes from proposed state legislation, keeping an eye on impact to local schools.

Schools have no control over what they must pay, she said, but “we’re not just sitting back. We are doing the work to mitigate the challenge.”

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