Solving special education cost conundrum will not be a sprint

As a parent whose two children progressed through Buckingham and Kelly Middle, I’m familiar with the credo of the Norwich Public Schools: “Proud of our past, focused on our future.″ 

Too often many of us with and without children in school don’t spend much time on either the past or the future, tending to think about NPS as budget formulations begin and start to heat up faster than the outside temperatures.

As consumers of city services, each of us wants what we want, and as a minimum more than what we had the year before, while also not wanting to pay more for it than we did previously. Imagine a pie of money: No matter how many slices you cut the municipal dollars, in the end there’s only one pie.

And when it comes to the dollars in the city budget devoted to education all of us seem to know more than the neighbors we elected to the Board of Education. And, present company included, while our judgments are frequently in error we are rarely in doubt about controlling expenses.

A week ago, I was a fly on a wall at City Hall as elected leaders from Bozrah, New London, Preston, Sprague and elsewhere from the region – by invitation of Mayor Peter Nystrom – joined the City Council and Board of Education as well as members of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities to begin to develop solutions to what has become the single most expensive area of municipal costs: Special education.

This will be a marathon not a sprint. It was a first step on what will be a long journey and a hard climb. In offering an overview of Connecticut special education costs, CCM Deputy Director Ron Thomas explained there were about 70,000 special education students in our state and $1 of every $5 of education spending goes for special education.

We know, or should, all about the challenges of education funding from this past spring when the BOE advised both the mayor and City Council they couldn’t cut $4 million from their requested $83 million budget and the City Council’s approved $78.4 million left the Board seeking five percent reductions in tuition and contract agreements to cover that gap.

Lost in the noise about the 2018-19 budget was a projected $1.5 million to $2 million budget deficit in the fiscal year that just ended, with most of that shortfall attributed to special education costs.

As was made clear during the meeting, the bad news is many municipalities and their school systems across the region as well as the state are in the same boat – and the even worse news is it’s a very large ocean.

I was impressed with much of what was said but even more so by the willingness to listen and the offers to work together. Because while many think of education as expensive, I don’t know who among us wants to calculate the cost of ignorance.

Source: Cityside: Solving special education cost conundrum will not be a sprint

Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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