WOBURN - Mayor Scott Galvin will ask local officials to establish a rainy day fund to manage unexpected special education (SPED) overruns.
While recently unveiling his proposed $156.7 million spending plan for FY'20, Galvin confirmed that he will support the creation of a special SPED reserve account to help school officials manage unanticipated spikes in out-of-district placements that commonly take place after the city has passed its annual operating budget each June.
"I will be submitting legislation to the City Council and the School Committee that allows the city to create a special stabilization fund. Upon acceptance, I will be forwarding an appropriation request of $500,000 as the first installment for that fund," Galvin recently advised the aldermen.
The new stabilization fund is being proposed after Schools' Superintendent Dr. Matthew Crowley and other central office administrators found themselves scrambling earlier this spring to manage a potentially crippling $2.9 million overrun in the district's SPED accounts.
During the City Council's most recent meeting in City Hall, Galvin declared that mid-year crisis — which was first disclosed to the School Committee in April — as largely the fault of poor budget management and financial oversight.
However, the city's chief executive also acknowledged that SPED expenditures, particularly those relating to out-of-district placements, have risen in dramatic fashion over the past decade.
On various occasions since 2009, the School Committee has struggled to manage its budget in light of last-minute SPED enrollments.
Complicating the fiscal picture, school officials like Assistant Superintendent for Finance Joseph Elia have repeatedly lamented that Woburn's SPED population is surging alongside the sudden decline of pivotal state aid and federal grant dollars, which have historically been relied upon to offset those education mandates.
Under state and federal protections, pupils with disabilities are eligible for the receipt of extra services, including accommodations like the placement of one-to-one aids or medical staff with students, so that they can be educated in the least restrictive learning environment.
Placement in a setting that most closely resembles a regular classroom in a child's neighborhood school is considered the most important benchmark in determining whether the least restrictive environment guideline is being achieved.
For that reason, school officials have tried to accommodate disabled pupils' education needs by creating special in-house initiatives, such as the district's language-based learning, life skills, and therapeutic programs.
However, in extreme situations, where a local school system lacks the resources to address those needs, children may be sent to an outside institution, an arrangement referred to as an out-of-district placement. Besides payment of annual tuition bills, the district is also responsible for any costs associated with transporting those pupils to and from their schools.
Under Galvin's proposal, the city will be taking advantage of a special clause of the state's 2016 Municipal Modernization Act that encourages municipalities to establish a local SPED stabilization account to absorb unforeseen out-of-district tuition and transportation costs.
The School Committee has been lobbying since 2017 to create that special fund. Once established both city and school officials can unilaterally deposit money into the account, but withdrawals can only be sanctioned through a vote of both the School Committee and City Council.
Twice over the past decade — in 2009 and 2013 — the city has allocated extra money to the school department due to SPED overruns. However, the School Committee has a long history of struggling to manage those costs.
Those past issues include the following:
• In 2009, the City Council approved a supplemental appropriation to cover a $535,220 SPED deficit;
• In the fall of 2013, just months after the establishment of Woburn's initial SPED reserve fund, school officials revealed they were trying to manage a $330,000 deficit due to the enrollment of 41 new students who qualified for extra services;
• In February of 2014, the School Committee announced it was tracking a $900,000 SPED deficit that was attributed to the unexpected enrollment of 40 new SPED pupils;
• In the spring of 2016, when 68 pupils were identified as receiving out-of-district SPED services, Elia initiated a districtwide spending freeze to cover an estimated $250,000 overrun;
This April, just two months after the mayor sanctioned a 3.5 percent or $2.2 million increase in school spending for FY'20, Crowley and Elia revealed the district had amassed a multi-million dollar SPED deficit.
Though confident the current year spending gap could be managed, both central office administrators explained that the district had entirely drained special SPED reserves to accomplish that feat. As a result, the superintendent warned that the FY'20 budget, even with the $2.2 million influx promised by Galvin, was unbalanced by $2.9 million.
Just weeks later, the mayor, scoffing at the size of the projected deficit, pledged an additional $1.2 million in school funding. In total, Galvin's budget calls for education spending to climb by 5.50 percent.
School administrators, saying no layoffs of program cuts will occur next year, has since described that extraordinary influx of funding as sufficient to meet the district's needs in FY'20.