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Charms Collaborative at risk of closing

Parents of disabled children were worried to learn last week of an impending vote, scheduled for June 1, on whether to dissolve the Charms Collaborative, a regional public education program for students who cannot attend classes with their non-disabled peers.

Lower enrollment has caused a six-figure budget deficit in the program, leading the board of directors — composed of school superintendents in Avon, Canton, Holbrook, Milton, Sharon, and Stoughton — to place four options on the table: Close the program, merge with another collaborative, initiate a two-year revitalization plan, or attempt to continue as normal.

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“It’s heartbreaking to even think about the place closing,” said Emil Taylor, a Stoughton father whose 10-year-old daughter, Elise, has cerebral palsy. After about five years in the program, Elise has begun taking steps with a walker and learned to use a computer, he said. She feels attached to the teachers, and he worries about what effect a new school might have on her.

“Some of these kids, a change of venue can have quite an impact on them,” he said.

Charms holds classes in Canton, Sharon, and Stoughton for the six member districts represented on the board, plus it accepts students from about 25 nonmember towns, according to program director Barbara Miller. It serves approximately 60 students.

Miller said she is concerned not only for the students but also for teachers who will lose their jobs.

Alan Dewey, interim executive director of the collaborative and a former assistant superintendent in Canton, said the program’s cash reserve has dropped by almost $1 million in the past six or seven years, and now stands at about $600,000. The budget deficit is approximately $120,000, he said, but normally some of the deficit gets made up at the last minute by new registrations.

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If the collaborative further depletes its reserve and goes bankrupt, member towns will be liable for any outstanding costs. Alternatively, if the collaborative continues to operate, individual districts have the right to withdraw, leaving liabilities to the remaining districts.

Asked why enrollment has fallen, Dewey, who has led the collaborative since the middle of March, said the group probably needs to expand programming. It could offer more classes tailored to meet demand, such as classes for 18- to 22-year-olds, he said. It could also offer 45-day placements to evaluate what services a student needs, and it could expand professional development, he said.

Dewey plans to depart June 30, and he has no interest in a permanent job, but he said he hopes the board extends the program for two years to try to fix the problems. He said his guess is the districts could be split, 3-3, if a vote to dissolve were taken today, but sentiments could change at any time.

Joseph Baeta, chairman of the Charms board and superintendent of schools in Holbrook, said he has not decided how to vote, but he believes the programs need to be stronger.

“We have some issues as to the strength of our programs and how competitive they are or not,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve been aggressive and proactive in meeting the needs of today’s child. I think we’re stuck in 20 years ago.”

In addition, some communities have started their own special-education programs for the population served by Charms. In total, those factors have eroded enrollment, which was in the mid-70s a few years ago, he said.

Baeta said he is not certain that merging with another collaborative is the answer. “A couple of us have concerns about big collaboratives,” he said, adding he has “no interest” in forcing students to travel farther than they already do.

Sue Linehan, a Sharon resident whose son Patrick will turn 18 in June, said he has made great progress in a Charms class at Sharon High School. She never dreamed that Patrick, who has autism, might have to switch to another program before he reaches 22, the age at which special education ends in Massachusetts.

Linehan decried what she called a lack of transparency and communication about the severity of the collaborative’s situation. She said a notice posted at the Sharon town offices revealed that the board would consider closing the program at the upcoming meeting. “I was kind of shocked,” she said. “It was like, ‘How could it come to this?’ ”

Luisa Ogbuike, a Milton parent, said she did not hear of the impending vote until Friday, when she got a call from the program director. Her 12-year-old son, Tyler, who has Asperger syndrome, improved in a Charms class after leaving a private one, she said, and transitions are difficult for him.

Another parent, Arul Kumar of Sharon, said she feels like her son is at home when he attends Charms, because his therapist has worked with him since he was 3 years old. “I don’t want this to happen,” she said of the potential closing.

Educational collaboratives have come under scrutiny by state officials as reviews by the inspector general and state auditor uncovered misspent funds. In June of last year, a report by the state inspector general accused John B. Barranco, a staff member at the Merrimac Special Education Collaborative northwest of Boston, of siphoning off millions in public funds. Legislative leaders later announced they were conducting an inquiry into the governance of the collaboratives.

Timothy Farmer, school superintendent in Sharon, said last week that the revelation of financial problems at Charms has no connection to the state scrutiny. The math does not work with lower enrollment, he said. At an average tuition of $48,000 per child, a small loss of students creates a deficit in a hurry. Closing low-enrollment classes could be part of a two-year plan to revamp the program, he said.

“I know that we can’t continue operating as we have,” Farmer said. “Something different has to occur.”

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.

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