John Jones, director of special services for RSU 9, speaks to the board of directors on Tuesday, Oct. 25, about the state of the program. The program is in a much better spot than it was in the previous year, but is still missing some key positions, Jones said. Brian Ponce/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — Regional School Unit 9 Director of Special Services John Jones and Assistant Director Cynthia Bernstein appeared before the board of directors on Tuesday, Oct. 25, to update the board on the status of special serviced in the district. In terms of staffing, Jones told the board the program was in a much better position than previously, but was still experiencing “key vacancies.”

“We had a bit of a choppy start to the school year, particularly with staffing,” Jones told the board.

According to his report, special services at RSU 9 is in a better position than last year in terms of education technicians, with the number of open positions going down from 33 to six. Jones, however, stated the program still had open positions for critical roles such as one middle school teacher, three high school teachers [two for day treatment, one for adaptive skills] and a school psychologist.

To add to that, the program saw the loss of a physical therapist at the beginning of the school year, Jones reported. He added the program had recently interviewed a promising applicant days prior to the meeting, but “these things do take time.”

Jones believes the issue is not with the district, but an issue of a much larger scale. “This is not unique to RSU 9,” he said. “This is a statewide problem, if not a national problem.”

According to an article published on in August, “data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that 42 states and Washington, D.C. have fewer special education teachers than schools need.”

States that were the exception included Arkansas, California, Louisiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah.

RSU 9 Superintendent Christian Elkington added to Jones’ statement by saying, “We had advertised and advertised, and we talked about that when this was in the budget, part of the difficulty will be in finding staff to be in a program that is high maintenance with students.”

To supplement the vacant position, the program has been rotating current staff members into the missing spots on specific days to keep certain programs active, specifically adaptive skills. Bernstein explained a “tremendous amount of communication with lead teachers” was critical in keeping the program active.

“We anticipated what the needs of the students would be as best we could,” she said about preparing for the school year. “We had some new kindergarteners coming in and then kids we knew from last year that were moved from Mallett to Cushing, the needs were substantially greater than we had expected.”

Jones corroborated this, stating, “The trend is, of the students coming in or transferring in, the needs are higher.”

Jones stated in his administrative report the number of currently identified students with disabilities in RSU 9 is 394, with 28 students currently in the referral process to determine eligibility. He broke down the number of student based on their needs as follows:

• Autism [62]

• Emotional disturbance [33]

• Intellectual disability [16]

• Multiple disability [37]

• Orthopedic impairment [1]

• Other health impairment [66]

• Specific learning disability [116]

• Speech and language disability [62]

As the year progresses, Jones believes the program will grow to roughly 415 to 420. Director J. Jeffrey Barnum of New Vineyard asked if the number of students in the program have fluctuated compared to previous years.

“A few years ago, we had a high of 430 students with disabilities,” Jones told the board member. “We’re somewhere between 18% to 20%, depending on the year and on the time of year as well.”

Jones went on to say the student population in special services is consistent, but in constant flux as students will move in and out of the program throughout the school year. “It’s not quite like catching a knuckle ball, but close,” he said.

Through all the challenges, Jones publicly thanked his staff members as well as parents for their cooperation. “I do want to thank the parents, if they’re listening and watching, who have supported us through all of this,” he stated.

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