Special-needs students in grades pre-kindergarten to 12 receive services through local education budgets supported by local property taxes and state funding raised primarily from income taxes. The effects of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), referendum Question 1, if it passes in the upcoming statewide November election, should be of concern to all Maine citizens.
For every student identified as needing them, special educational services are mandated by both federal laws (PL93-122 section 504, PL94-142, and PL100-476) and state laws (Title 20-A, Part 4, Subpart 1) and therefore cannot be reduced by the expenditure caps proposed in the TABOR referendum question. Because TABOR cannot directly affect special education, the effect of TABOR expenditure limits are magnified for all other expenses including regular education, other municipal, and state expenses.
Within the Southern Penobscot Regional Program for Children with Exceptionalities, an area encompassing nine school districts and 32 municipalities in the Bangor region, special-education costs represent 11 percent of the education budget; and because education represents an average of 60 percent of the total municipal budget, special education costs represent 6.5 percent of the municipal budget. Any expenditure reductions, therefore, need to be taken from the remaining budget items. Statewide figures are similar.
TABOR demands an expenditure cap related to enrollment and an average economic indicator index (Consumer Price Index, presently 3.4 percent a year). Therefore, any school system experiencing a decrease in student enrollment will have a budget allowance under TABOR that is actually below the rate of inflation. In contrast, special needs expenses have been increasing above the rate of inflation. Between the 2000-01 and the 2004-05 school years, special education costs increased an average of 4.7 percent a year. Under TABOR, because the special education services are mandated, the rest of the municipal budget would therefore be “crowded out” by the mandated special education increases.
The costs of special education are not distributed evenly among students receiving services: Some students require very modest services and some require extensive services including programs not available locally. In the case of an out-of-district placement for receipt of special education services, the local budget must carry the costs of services plus housing and transportation. In a small town, one student’s costs can overwhelm the local budget.
State reimbursement of special-education costs run two years behind the actual expenditure so that the local town budget must absorb the increased costs immediately. TABOR’s expenditure cap, when applied to individual town special education obligations, can leave local budgets in disarray when one or two families move in or out of the town.
The ability of the state to reimburse special education expenses, or to fund the essential programs and services of regular education is also restricted by the expenditure limits imposed by TABOR. Voters passed referendum Question 1 in June 2004 requiring the state to pay for 55 percent of education costs. TABOR conflicts with that referendum vote and places the state’s ability to meet its 55 percent obligation in real jeopardy.
The override mechanism for expenditures exceeding the TABOR cap involves super-majority voting (two thirds vote rather than a one half majority) giving opponents’ votes twice the weight of proponents’ votes.
The southern Penobscot region, similarly to the rest of the state, has 11.4 percent of students identified with special needs. The following services, tailored to the individual special needs child, are mandated: psychological, social work, speech and language, audiological, recreation, special transportation, school health, counseling, other related, and rehabilitation counseling, and also occupational and physical therapy.
In recent years, the greatest increase in needed services is for children with autism. The rate of increase in the southern Penobscot region in the incidence of autism has been 30 percent a year over the last five years. In 2000 there were 68 students with autism; in 2005 there were 250. This explosive growth in autism is seen throughout the rest of Maine and the nation. Legislation in Congress (Combating Autism) to fund autism support and autism research passed the Senate but is now stuck in the House and will not be acted upon this session.
The quality of life for a child with autism is most improved with early intervention and ongoing services. Early intervention can improve continued success in school. These services and their increasing costs do not represent excess spending.
School superintendents carry the responsibility for the educational welfare of the child in need of special services. Special education does improve student achievement. The restrictions of TABOR on municipal spending are not applied with due consideration to the benefits of that spending. The voters have always had, and should retain the right to vote (with equal weight) on the balance of spending and societal value. TABOR should be rejected.
Gene MacDonald is administrator of the Southern Penobscot Regional Program for Children with Exceptionalities on behalf of the southern Penobscot region’s superintendents, special education directors and school board members who serve as directors of the Southern Penobscot Regional Program for Children with Exceptionalities.