Boston’s special education budget cuts worry parents
Some special education classes would increase in size by one student while maintaining current staffing levels, under the budget adopted last month by the Boston School Committee.
Adding a student may not sound like a dramatic change. But some parents of children with autism fear the move could erode gains in learning and independence for students who have made great strides through high levels of support.
The plan to expand small special education classes — called “substantially separate” settings — alarmed Roslindale mother Sonia Garufi.
“I can’t even fathom what that must be like, because the kids that are in substantially separate really need intense help,” Garufi said. “Just a simple task like going to the bathroom, walking down the hall, for other kids may take all of five minutes. For these kids . . . it’s so much more intense.”
Garufi’s 13-year-old son, Anthony, has autism and spent four years in substantially separate special education classes. Garufi said Anthony has overcome many challenges and become a high-functioning teen because he received the resources he needed.
Now, with Anthony integrated into a mainstream classroom at the Dennis C. Haley Pilot School in Roslindale, she worries some services supporting special education students in general education settings could be cut.
The maximum size of classes for students with autism will increase from nine students to 10, while maintaining staffing levels of one teacher and two aides per room. Schools have the option, though, of limiting classes to nine students by sharing an aide half-time with another special education classroom.
For students with emotional impairments, classes will also grow from nine students to 10, but will maintain the current staffing of one teacher and one aide. The budget will also reduce funding — but not staffing — for special education students learning in classrooms alongside mainstream students, officials said.
Some parents say it is unfair that some of the district’s most vulnerable students bear the brunt of nearly 16 percent of the $32 million in cuts in the budget adopted last month. The spending blueprint still needs the approval of the City Council and mayor.
Karla Estrada, the School Department’s deputy superintendent of student support services, said the district cut funds for some special education categories only after deep deliberation.
“We looked carefully across our different programs, not just in special education but across other areas . . . to identify additional funds,” Estrada said.
Even with the changes, the proposed size and staffing configurations of classrooms serving students with autism and emotional impairments would remain above the state minimum, which limits special education classes to eight students for a lone teacher or 12 students if the teacher is supported by an aide.
And despite cuts in some categories, the special education budget for next year actually is set to increase to $258.6 million, about one-quarter of the district’s overall budget.
Already Boston spends about 53 percent more on special education than comparable districts, according to a city-commissioned study by Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit consulting firm.
But rising costs — largely in salaries and benefits — mean the district is about $5 million short of being able to match current service levels. Eleanor Laurans, executive director of school finance, said such gaps persist because costs outpace revenues each year.
“The fact that our special education spending is going up by [$9.2] million, but that everyone feels like we’re making cuts, shines a spotlight on our structural deficit,” Laurans said.
Amid a public outcry last month, the mayor and Superintendent Tommy Chang canceled across-the-board cuts to the high schools and partly restored funds for longer days in five preschools. But the special education cuts remained in the plan.
Because those reductions affect all district schools in proportion to the number of special education students they serve, parents like Michelle Novelle say high school funding has not truly been restored.
Novelle has a son with autism at Boston Community Leadership Academy in Hyde Park, where she said there are 36 students with autism. That means the school will lose a total of about $48,000 for those students.
“It’s just not possible with those kinds of cuts to maintain the quality of services that the special education students receive,” Novelle said.
Amid the reductions, the district also plans new spending for special education. It allocated about $1 million for a new data system to help share information with families and gauge the effectiveness of programs.
The district is also spending $1 million to add support teams to integrate special education students into mainstream classrooms and $1 million to expand transition services to help teens and young adults develop independent living skills and prepare for college or employment.