TEWKSBURY — The Tewksbury Special Education Parent Advisory Council traveled to Boston recently to visit with the district’s legislative delegation to discuss how to support and raise visibility for issues impacting students with special learning needs. The group met with State Senator Barry Finegold, Representative Tram Nguyen and Representative David Robertson.
According to the group webpage, the TSEPAC is a group for all Tewksbury residents who have children on an IEP or 504 Plan who attend a Tewksbury public school or who have an out-of-district placement. It is a volunteer group of elected parents who hold meetings periodically, keep parents informed of special education activities, serve as an advisory committee to the Tewksbury School Committee and meet with the Director of Student Services to discuss special education policies, procedures and programming.
The group that went to Beacon Hill included parents, students, and Tewksbury School Committee chairperson Dennis Francis. They were treated to lunch in Ashburton Park and enjoyed a tour of the state house. Senator Finegold’s office organized the day’s events and meeting for the PAC. The group then met with the delegation.
“We met with Rep. Robertson, Rep. Nguyen, and Sen. Finegold. They talked to us about the foundation budget and their hope to increase money for the circuit breaker account,” said Dina Mancini, co-chair of TSEPAC.
The Special Education Circuit Breaker account was put into effect in 2004 so that the Commonwealth would help defray the expense to local school districts for providing legally mandated special education supports and services to children with severe disabilities, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education. Special education is paid for from four major sources — the general funds of the town, federal special education grants (IDEA grants), Chapter 70 funds, and the state circuit-breaker grant.
The state’s Special Education Circuit Breaker program reimburses local school districts for a portion of their costs above a certain threshold for educating severely high-needs special education students. The threshold for eligibility is tied to four times the state average foundation budget per pupil as calculated under the Chapter 70 education funding law. The state is required to pay up to 75 percent of the costs above that threshold.
Mancini said, “We talked to them about a bill introduced by Rep. Jim Arciero of Westford. This bill proposes that every town has a nonvoting SEPAC member on the school committee to ensure that the SEPAC in every town has a voice.”
She went on to say, “We also talked to (the delegation) about some of our concerns in town. For example, we pointed out that, while we invited each central office administrator to join us for our day on the hill, none of them showed up. We are building a better relationship with the School Committee, but we are still struggling with the administration.”
Mancini praised the current Tewksbury School Committee, noting that they are much more engaged than prior boards.
Francis said, “We’ve turned the page on that chapter and are headed in the right direction now. We want to work together with the SEPAC, administration and the families. Everyone’s goal is to do what is best for the kids”.
With respect to the visit, Sen. Finegold said, “Securing more funding for public education and improving the funding formula so that it serves all our students are among my top priorities this legislative session. It’s critical that we do not forget our students with special needs during this debate, however. As a member of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, I proudly supported the Senate budget that fully funds the special education circuit breaker, which reimburses school districts for the costs incurred by educating and transporting students with special needs.”
Sen. Finegold, who represents the 2nd Essex and Middlesex districts, went on to say, “I thought it was important to invite the Tewksbury and Wilmington SEPACs to the State House so that parents and students affected by these debates could directly participate in the discussion. My colleagues and I really appreciated their insight and will remain in conversation with them as education funding is debated on Beacon Hill.”
Mancini said, “The overall goal for the day is to increase SEPAC awareness. It's legally required that every town and city in Massachusetts has a SEPAC, and that the town inform and include the SEPAC members in decisions regarding children with disabilities.”
Mancini would like the Tewksbury School Department to improve the level of engagement with the SEPAC. When asked about the TSEPAC and the visit to Beacon Hill, Tewksbury school administration offered no comment.
“We are going to keep plugging away until this changes!” said Mancini.