By Donna Wolfrom, Superintendent of Schools
While many districts are just beginning budget season, it feels as if we, in Cape Elizabeth, have been working on the budget process since October when a joint meeting of the Town Council and the School Board was held to plan for FY20. The purpose of this meeting was to promote communication between the two groups and to identify steps to take in order to promote cooperation as both groups work on their budgets. We continued the conversation between the two governing bodies at a meeting in December. Members took time from their busy lives to meet to develop strategies for sharing information as we proceed through the budget development process.
One of the strategies identified was to develop a budget development sub-committee of this combined group that would meet at least monthly, or more often if needed, though the budget development process to request and share information. This sub-committee would consist of the Town Manager, the Superintendent of Schools, the Chair of the Town Council and School Board, and the finance chairs of each group. It is the hope of the combined Town Council and School Board that improved communication and understanding will provide a more transparent budget process for all involved.
A question that arose at the December combined meeting has been a question that often emerges as I speak with community members, “Why has the cost of education increased in Cape Elizabeth, even though our enrollment has been declining since 2006?” While it is true that enrollment has been dropping, our buildings are full. This does not seem to make sense until you consider the increase in mandated services that we are now required to offer our students.
The following are some of the mandates that have impacted school budgets since 2000. In 2006 final reauthorization of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was signed into law. This reauthorization ensured that students with disabilities receive a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE). Included in the act are provisions to provide IEPs (Individual Education Plans), confidentiality, FAPE, and discipline appropriate to the disability. Another law designed to ensure that a child with disabilities has equal access to education is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. While this act was signed into law in 1973, increased attention to the legal requirements for providing students with accommodations and modifications without IDEA funding has impacted school districts. Additional support services were mandated for students who were not meeting district benchmarks in Maine. By July 1, 2012 Maine schools were required to design an RTI (Response to Intervention) system to support students who did not meet the academic and behavioral benchmarks identified by the district. This RTI system was considered a pre-referral system provided through General Education Intervention. An additional mandated program for Maine gifted and talented students was mandated to be provided in the 20ll-2012 school year. The list of additional programs that have been mandated by the state and federal government include English Language Acquisition Service for English Learners, Internet Safety Instruction, Suicide Prevention, Affirmative Action Officer and Training, and the list continues.
Increased mandates necessitate increased time, staff, space, and educational resources. Some mandates are federally or state funded, or partially funded. Some are not. Some of the impacts of these mandates on Cape Elizabeth Schools are as follows.
Special Education students’ needs are addressed according to their IEPs. These plans are legal documents and specify the services that schools need to provide these students to ensure their access to a Free and Appropriate Education. The services are provided by staff and staff need rooms in which to work. Often these rooms need to be private and quiet (in the case of speech and psychological assessment). For example, currently we have 1 full time (FT) speech provider at the Cape Elizabeth High School (CEHS) , 1 at the Cape Elizabeth Middle School (CEMS), and 1.5 at Pond Cove Elementary School (PCES). The two speech teachers at PCES have worked their schedule so that they can share 1 space. The amount of Occupational Therapy (OT) and Physical Therapy (PT) services are specified in a student’s IEP based on the needs of the student. Space also depends on student need, as some students may require work with large equipment and others with smaller devices. Rooms are allocated based on need. CEMS students’ access (OT) services at PCES. PT and OT providers share a space at PCES. CEHS students access OT services in a room with exercise equipment provided to meet their needs.
Cape Elizabeth Schools employ 1 FT School Psychologist who services students in all three schools. She requires a private office in each school in order to test students. We also contract with 2 part time consultant psychologists in order to meet special education assessment requirements.
In addition to these special providers, regulations require special educators who work with students to provide academic programs and support. There are 4 special education teachers who need spaces at PCES, 5 at CEMS, and 4 at CEHS.
CEHS and CEMS each have 1 special education social worker and 1 regular education social worker. A room is needed for each of these staff members in order to provide confidentiality for our students. PCES has 1 FT social worker and 1 ½ time social worker that work to meet the needs of their students. These staff also need private rooms.
Currently at Cape Elizabeth High School we have 3 full time (FT) guidance counselors, at Pond Cove Elementary School we have 1 FT guidance counselor, and at Cape Elizabeth Middle School we have 2 FT guidance providers. All of these staff need rooms in which to work with students.
State regulations require that each school district provide English Language Learner (ELL) services. We employ 1 teacher who services all three schools. She needs a space in each of those schools.
We are also required by the state to provide a Gifted and Talented (GT) program for students in our district. Our current teacher works with students in CEMS and PCES and needs a space in each school in order to work with students. Often, when schedules can accommodate, these spaces are shared with another staff member needing a small space.
Recent state regulations require each school district to implement a Response to Intervention (RTI program, a pre-referral program. Currently the Cape Elizabeth program services students in CEMS and PCES. There are 4 RTI teachers in each of these schools, requiring 4 small group working spaces at PCES and 2 spaces at CEMS. Students who need support at CEHS work with teachers in the Academic Center.
Special Education laws require schools to have identification and periodic review meetings in which parents, teachers, administrators, and special service providers are in attendance. There can be as many as 15 to 25 people at some of these meetings. RTI regulations require frequent meetings of interventionists and teachers in order to identify students who are not making progress, design a program of support, and then monitor the impact of the support on the student through progress monitoring. Regulations require team decisions regarding intervention steps along the way for the student. These meetings require large meeting/conference spaces. In addition, more than one of these meetings is usually occurring at the same and it is often difficult to find large, confidential spaces within our buildings to hold these meetings.
Each of our schools has a school nurse which requires 1 office in each school. In addition, each school has an Assistant Principal who needs an office, as well as a Principal who needs an office. Our recent addition, a School Resource Officer (SRO) supplied by the town, requires an office space, and our Food Service Director is in dire need of an office space which we haven’t been able to provide. We also employ a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst who evaluates students and works with teachers to develop behavior plans. She also requires a space to work.
Increasing state and federal regulations and staff necessary to meet the needs of our students have necessitated the creation of small working spaces and offices for these staff and their students. No longer can schools provide only 1 classroom teacher and 1 standard classroom and still meet student needs. Many students need small spaces to work with support staff. So, while it is true, enrollment has decreased over the years, the federal and state mandates have changed the way we use our buildings. Often former classrooms have been “recreated” to provide smaller spaces for our service providers to work. I have spoken to the three Cape Elizabeth school principals and each report that due to the present needs in their buildings, they are filled to capacity. Principals, teachers, and specialists work very hard to develop schedules that allow for the sharing of spaces, when possible. At CEMS one teacher who requires a larger space for his program, is working with students in the hallway because there is no room available. One of our newer teachers at CEMS works from a cart that she pushes from classroom to classroom. Her office, where she keeps supplies and resources, is located in the basement at CEMS.
One might expect that as enrollment goes down, education costs for that district should also go down. However, state and federal mandates continue to impact our budget, and many of these are unfunded mandates that fall back on the schools to support. In addition, we still have to heat our buildings and provide water (expected 4.4% increase for FY20), sewer (expected 4.4% increase for FY20), and electrical power regardless of enrollment (unless we would ever determine that we should close a building). These costs continue to rise and will be reflected in our FY20 budget.
As we work to develop the FY20 budget, we will review staffing, programs, supplies, and equipment in order to present the most fiscally responsible budget possible, while still meeting the demands of mandates and laws, and the needs of our students. I urge community members to attend Cape Elizabeth School Board budget meetings in order to follow the budget development process. Documents and budget updates will be available on the school website in order to inform our citizens and promote transparency as we move through this challenging and difficult process.