LEWISTON — Special education costs rose by $6 million in the past four years and the number of students in the program has risen as overall enrollment has dropped.

Director Pamela Emery is asking for an increase of $1.2 million and 17 new positions for fiscal year 2021 to meet the needs of more than 1,100 students.

But a proposal from Superintendent Todd Finn would cut that budget request in half.

“How we do business is costing us a lot of money,” he told the School Committee on Monday night.

His plan includes a thorough audit of the special education program and would add only five positions, all at Lewiston Middle School, at a cost of $630,000 to fund RISE (Reaching Independence through Systematic Education).

The program is offered at elementary schools and Lewiston High School but not at the middle school.

The alternative would be to pay $1 million to place eight incoming seventh-graders in outside programs, he said.

The RISE program includes on-site visits from the Center for Children with Special Needs, Emery said. “It’s all about inclusion in general education classrooms.”

Finn shared the findings of a 2018-19 Maine Department of Education audit of Lewiston’s special education program.

Issues included alignment of goals to disabilities.

“This is a huge issue,” Finn said. “If we’re not in alignment, we’ve got problems.”

Other issues were timeliness of individual education plans and inclusion in IEPs of “present levels, strengths and needs and alignment of services and goals,” Finn read from the audit.

The DOE also cited a lack of training and improper use of forms.

But the audit did not look at financials and performed no in-depth examination of services or human capital, Finn said.

“This adds up,” he said. “We have an education issue in Lewiston because of a lack of appropriate professional development in regular classrooms.”

Teachers making special education referrals within six to eight weeks of getting a student in class is “far too quick,” he said.

“We need research-backed training on functional needs, and we need training in a multitiered and social-emotional approach.”

That approach could reap significant savings, Finn said.

To that end, he and Chief Administrative Officer Bobbi Avery recommended a complete audit by American Education Consultants, which would present its findings within 10 weeks of the audit.

Then, Finn said, the district could “restructure, reshape and move forward.”

AEC’s audit of the York public school district resulted in savings of $360,000 per year and that district is “much smaller than we are,” Finn said.

He said the audit results would not affect this year’s budget or program, but the committee would have “a new road map in August going forward.”

Alicia Rea, the City Council representative to the School Committee, called the proposal a good idea.

“Special education is 28 percent of our budget and it sounds like we’re not getting the outcomes we’d like for our students,” Rea said. “Having someone look at it from a different perspective would be good.”

The AEC audit would cost $65,000, Finn said.

He said Emery and Assistant Special Education Director Anna Mathieu were not to blame for the “current patterns” in the special education program.

“This is no reflection on the hard work of Pam and Anna,” he said. “They are two of the best in the business. What they stepped into was already the systemic practice.”

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