An increase in students being diagnosed with autism or other disabilities is driving up special education spending in Boston, prompting the School Department to request $6 million in supplemental funding.
The additional money is needed so the School Department can end the fiscal year in June with a balanced budget. The School Committee is scheduled to vote on the request at its June 5 meeting.
If approved, the request would then be sent to the City Council, which would decide whether to appropriate the funds.
“Our obligation is to provide these services,” said John McDonough, the School Department’s chief financial officer. “That is not something we have any discretion over whatsoever. . . . The costs associated with them need to be covered.”
The funding is being used primarily to support public school programs for preschoolers diagnosed with disabilities, particularly on the autism spectrum, a segment of the student population that has seen a steep increase in special education enrollment.
By April, 747 students with disabilities, including 158 on the autism spectrum, were enrolled in preschool, compared with 482 four years ago.
Educating students with autism can be an intensive and expensive endeavor. The School Department limits preschool class sizes to no more than eight students with autism, and many of them also require working one-on-one with a behavioral specialist.
Nearly $5 million of the additional funding request would pay for behavioral specialists, most of whom are provided by private contractors. Over the next few years, in an effort to reduce costs, the School Department is planning to expand its staff of behavioral specialists.
Overall, 489 students across all grade levels this year are working with behavioral specialists, up from 205 last year.
The rest of the funding request would pay for such services as occupational and physical therapy, and busing of students to programs outside Boston. Some money also would go toward an effort at Roslindale’s Irving Middle School to provide special education students more opportunities to be educated in regular classrooms, under a practice known as inclusion.
The unexpected increase in spending for this year is actually higher than the supplemental funding request, coming in at a total of $7.5 million.
But the School Department covered $1.5 million through internal cost savings.
Overall, the School Department has budgeted $171.6 million for special education services this school year and is expecting to spend $193.7 million next year.
McDonough said that while the School Committee and the City Council consider the spending request, no students will be denied services.
That promise represents a departure from last year when a number of 3-year-olds were placed on waiting lists for behavioral specialists or enrollment in preschool programs, a potential violation of state and federal laws that require educating special needs students as soon as they turn 3.
School officials presented the spending request at last Wednesday’s School Committee meeting. None of the committee members raised concerns about approving the additional funding, an indication that passage is likely.
Carolyn Kain — chairwoman of the Boston SpedPac, an advocacy group for parents of children with special needs — said she was pleased the School Department has stepped up its effort this year to serve students with disabilities in preschool.
“We are in much better shape,” Kain said. “That is a positive thing for families.”
But she also stressed the need for the state and federal governments to send local districts more money to cover the growing costs of special education.