By Tessa Raebeck
Hoping to develop a new in-house program for students with disabilities, Sag Harbor School District administrators proposed a special education budget to the Board of Education on Thursday, March 12, that would keep those students in the district while still reducing expenses by almost 5 percent from last year’s budget.
“For the first time in many years, we have a lot of preschool students with some very profound disabilities,” Director of Pupil Personnel Services Barbara Bekermus told the board. “These are our kids and they should be in our schools is the bottom line…. I also think it’s a benefit, and it’s more effective to keep the students in our school financially, but most importantly, they belong in our community.”
Ms. Bekermus said the parents of special needs students that she has spoken with are “so excited” at the prospect of their children staying at Sag Harbor Elementary School, rather than traveling to programs as far away as Center Moriches and Cutchogue, and spending as much as three hours on a bus each day.
The in-house program would be a class with students in kindergarten, first and second grade, with up to eight students, a teacher and three teaching assistants. Ms. Bekermus said there are about 11 students entering those grades who would qualify for the special services and estimated that four or five of them would be assigned to the special class, while the rest would be based in inclusion classrooms. The elementary school already has a behavioral specialist, Elizabeth Rasor, on staff.
“When I observe other programs and I know what Sag Harbor Elementary School does, I know we can do it as well if not better…I have total confidence,” said Ms. Bekermus.
If the district does not start its own in-house program at the elementary school, it would be required to find alternative placement for those special educations students and would need to pay tuition to the school they attend, such as Childhood Development Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton. The district also pays busing costs for those students.
Even with adding the teachers, speech therapist and occupational therapist, and the respective salaries and benefits, Ms. Buscemi said, “you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings.” If the district decides to pursue an in-house special education program, the new students coming in would add a projected cost of $614,000, School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi said. She said those costs would be offset by lower expenses elsewhere, such as for busing and tuition rates.
Despite the projected increase for the proposed new program, the special education budget would still be decreasing by 4.9 percent overall. The proposed budget for next year, the 2015-16 school year, for special education is about $3.8 million, a decrease of nearly $200,000 from the current school year’s operating budget.
“It would still cost the district and taxpayers less if we bring it in-house than if we don’t. So, this is a benefit to the students and it’s a benefit to the taxpayers,” summed up Chris Tice, the board’s vice president.
Ms. Bekermus noted that if students choose to stay at CDCH despite Sag Harbor having its own program, the district would still have to pay for those students.
“This is heart-driven, this is really all about children,” said Superintendent Katy Graves, who was in support of the proposal, citing research that “tells us when students are around their peers they make much faster progress,” and that special education students often read at a faster rate and excel when “mainstreamed” into their local schools with students of all levels.
There is also the advantage of students being integrated into the community where they will likely be working and living as young adults and adults, Ms. Bekermus said.
Ms. Tice added that non-special education students would likewise benefit from developing relationships with their peers who have disabilities.
After hearing about the impact of tax rate projections at its upcoming budget workshop on Monday, March 23, the Board of Education plans to adopt the budget on April 22, with a hearing scheduled for May 5 and the annual budget vote and election on May 19.