Expanding state special ed requirements could mean added costs for school districts

Families with special needs students across the state expected their children’s public education to end last year if they turned 21 years old, but a recent court ruling has given some additional time to build their skills.

A federal court ruling over the summer has extended the time frame for how long these services are required to be offered, meaning districts could have a few more students than initially expected. The change applies to services Connecticut offers under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and went into effect this school year, though the state is appealing the decision.

But some local school officials are concerned that the sometimes high cost of educating these students, most notably through outplacement programs, could become an issue for school boards. More than 200 students stopped receiving services when the lawsuit was filed a few years ago because they turned 21, according to the nonprofit Disability Rights Connecticut .

“We will follow the law as always,” Danbury Superintendent Sal Pascarella said. “Students spending an extra year in school under any circumstances is more expensive.”

Added costs could be for additional staff if the transition center is offered within the district or tuition if the district needs to send the student out of district to attend a center there. Any district has to factor in transportation costs, which could be tens of thousands of dollars per student alone.

In New Milford, one student is returning. Another was eligible but the family decided against it because it would have only been for a few weeks.

“I believe the extension of this program is a great opportunity for our students,” said Laura Olson, New Milford’s director of director of pupil personnel and special services. She added she’s always in favor of expanding options for them.

Prior to the change, the state provided special education services for students who qualified for the remainder of the school year they turned 21. This means any student who turned 21 after July 1 would finish out the year in the program, whether they turned 21 on Sept. 1 or June 5.

Now, these services are offered until the students turn 22, ending on their actual birthday regardless of where it falls in the school year.

Olson said this move is in line with what neighboring states and with many other states across the country are doing.

There are currently 11 students enrolled at New Milford’s Litchifield Hills Transition Center, which serves students with disabilities who are between 18 and now 22 years old. They learn a variety of skills that can lead to full employment, access to leisure activities and group homes, depending on each students’ disability.

“There’s a wide range for what they’re going to get out of the program based on their needs,” Olson said.

The district also works with the state Department of Developmental Services and Department of Aging and Disability Services, which help find employment opportunities in the summer and takes over the cases when the students leave the district.

“They’re a great liaison in working with the families so there’s no lapse in services,” Olson said.

The case

A.R., an unidentified student who is now 21, filed the lawsuit against the state in 2016. She is working for her high school diploma, but had fallen behind in earning the credits needed due to different circumstances and her disabilities.

“This relieves a huge pressure I’ve been feeling, wondering what’s the point if I can’t finish,” she said. “It gives me the time I need to be able to learn more and be more effective. I can work on finding a job, looking at colleges, getting my license, finding housing if I have to. Now I’ll be able to finish without the stress of not being able to finish on time. I won’t get scared and just give up.”

A.R.’s attorneys argued the state violated IDEA because Connecticut generally provides public education to those without disabilities who are 21 and older through adult education programs where they can earn their diplomas, yet this continued education wasn’t offered to those with disabilities.

The Connecticut State Board of Education maintained it didn’t violate the IDEA because these adult education programs don’t “constitute ‘public education’ because they significantly differ from education provided in Connecticut’s public schools,” according to court documents.

U.S. Senior District Judge Charles S. Haight, Jr. ruled in favor of A.R. citing precedent.

“The Court finds that the Board’s systemic denial of a free appropriate public education to individuals with disabilities between the ages of 21 and 22, which has resulted in complete exclusion of such individuals from educational placement, constitutes a gross violation of the IDEA,” Haight wrote.

The decision means all students who haven’t turned 22 yet nor received a regular high school diploma in Connecticut are still eligible for special education services under the IDEA up until their 22nd birthday or until they graduate from high school with a regular high school diploma

“We are reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps,” said Elizabeth Benton, spokesman for Connecticut’s Office of the Attorney General, adding she couldn’t comment beyond that.

Future costs

New Milford is looking to add a part-time teacher to bring staffing up to two full time positions and meet this years needs. It could cost around $25,000 depending on the person’s qualifications, Olson said.

The district is able to maintain the rest of their services as budgeted because it’s just one student remaining. Next year Olson said it might be more because it could mean three or four students remaining until they are 22, which would require the district to lease another vehicle to bring them to the Litchfield Hills Transition Center in town, where the students attend.

There’s also the possibility of tuition students from other districts. Olson said she tries to take those students when she can so more people can participate.

“Many districts don’t have transition centers,” she said. “We’re proud of what we offer.”

Olson said they’re always concerned about costs, but there isn’t any added worry this year with the change coming at the same time as districts face additional costs connected with the coronavirus because the two are separate.

Districts are already strapped for cash, so this change is an additional burden, Bethel Superintendent Christine Carver said, adding some other districts were substantially affected.

“Obviously any types of impacts like that financially to the district are really hard because it’s got to come from somewhere and that just makes it a challenge,” Carver said.

Brookfield outplaces six students in an 18-22 program, but didn’t have any eligible for the extra time this year.

Tuition costs between $35,000 and $55,000 per student based on where the student attends. Transportation per student also ranges between $35,000 to $40,000, said Gina Wygonik, Brookfield’s pupil personnel services director.

She said the district could have a student eligible under the new requirements next year.

Brookfield Superintendent John Barile said this will eventually cost the district an additional year of services but he sees the benefits the program offers.

“Based on student need, this extra year can provide students more opportunities to master or refine their skill set,” he said.

Carver agreed.

“When students leave our services and go into adult services, it’s a much different experience,” Carver said. “They certainly have access in PreK-12 education to services they don’t get as adults, so of course that’s good for kids. I would argue the adult services should be the same, but it’s not that way.”

Staff writer Julia Perkins contributed.

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