BURLINGTON - The School Committee unanimously approved a motion that will see all tuition payments for out-of-district placement students funded through the end of fiscal year 2020.
School officials have been receiving “conflicting recommendations” from the Massachusetts Department of Education and existing state law, as the district has sought proper direction since they have not paid for these services since in-class school was canceled in March.
School Supt. Dr. Eric Conti informed the committee that he talked to other districts managing the same situation, and confirmed that 50 percent are paying and 50 percent aren’t.
An out-of-district placement is a specialized school or program outside the local school district. Out-of-district placement is for kids whose educational needs can't be met by their local schools. Students may be placed in public or private schools, or at a residential school where they live full time. The tuition for these students total thousands of dollars on an annual fiscal basis. Burlington currently has 87 students that qualify as out-of-district.
“Out-of-district placements not being paid for would be devastating if we lost the slots we have for such placements,” stated Dr. Conti. “State regulations say we cannot pay for services that are not rendered.”
School Vice Chair Stephen Nelson summed up the situation as being “caught between a rock and a hard place,” further stressing the district “can’t afford” to lose its placement spots because it will likely mean paying more in the end.
The school district’s attorney, Darren Klein, of KP Law, P.C., outlined that the decision to pay or not comes down to essentially the desires of each specific district, which makes sense when hearing that 50 percent of districts have paid the tuition and 50 percent haven’t.
“The 50/50 split comes down to if you are a district feeling like you are not getting the services anymore, then legally you cannot pay the bills,” Klein counseled. “If, as a district, you are receiving the services, then legally you can pay for those services.”
School Committee member Thomas Murphy insisted it comes down to a “policy discussion” within the district.
“It is an internal decision for us to make, more than awaiting for an external decision from the state,” declared Murphy. “This is money that has already been allocated for this purpose, so there is no loss in the budget, no matter what happens with these payments.”
Money is allocated from the state level to help districts fund the out-of-district placement tuitions, so the funds are already in-place for such payments.
“Both sides of the conversation are right and have merit,” maintained Dr. Conti. “We are trying to navigate while considering the best interests of the students.”
Mary Houde, special education director for Burlington Public Schools, referenced the harsh realities that would result from not paying the tuitions for these students.
“For children who would lose their spot, would result in a safety issue and there would be nowhere to put them or educate them,” advised Houde. “It would be a crisis and the waiting list at private schools is very long. The financial ramifications for that would be huge; trying to find placement, then compensatory for not having a placement for a child would be extensive.”
Hearing that, the committee came to a unanimous decision to support the payment of out-of-district placement tuitions throughout fiscal year 2020.
“I do not think it is worth the risk of not paying tuitions,” pressed Nelson. “We are getting circuit-breaker money through the state and the costs could be 10 times as much if we do not pay.”
School Committee Chair Christine Monaco believes it is “not a good idea” to wait any longer on a decision on this matter, as she noted, “We have had since March to figure this out, and I do not want to wait any longer because we might lose our out-of-district placement spots.”
The committee concluded the conversation by unanimously ratifying the authorization and direction of Dr. Conti to pay out-of-district tuition payment bills through the end of fiscal year 2020. No specifics were revealed regarding the cost of each tuition payment for the 87 qualified students in the district. It is known that the tuitions prices vary.