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by Anne Berleant
After nearly an hour of mostly questions and answers between citizens and Eric Herlan, the Drummond & Woodsun attorney representing the Surry School Department in a long-standing special education dispute, residents approved a warrant article appropriating $233,000 of unallocated school funds “in settlement of non-recurring special education costs.”
The vote at the June 7 special town meeting was 31-1, with school board member Jon Walden the sole vote in dissent.
At issue was the continuing education of a special needs Surry resident that has spawned legal proceedings dating back to November 2007. However, discussions between the school and the student’s guardian as to how to fulfill the student’s legal right to a free, public education, and the responsibilities of the Surry School Department towards this, have gone on significantly longer.
Municipalities are required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 USC 1400, et seq.) to provide an appropriate education for disabled students, regardless of the cost.
Providing these education services are “unavoidable,” but Surry has the opportunity to address the student’s needs “at a fraction of the cost” of what it will have to pay if the arrangement doesn’t move forward, Herlan said.
The one-year special education cost of a high-needs student can rise as high as $150,000, he said.
With the warrant approved, the state “and others” will pay a large portion of the special education funding for the student, in an “arrangement put together over a long period of time,” Herlan said.
He apologized for the vagueness of his explanation, and answers to questions, but said that confidentiality laws prohibited the discussion of specific details.
Questions from citizens at the meeting covered who would handle the money (a trust overseen by a committee); what would happen to any money “left over” (it reverts back to the trust, with “the involvement” of MaineCare and Medicare); why this case is different from those normally handled by the school union’s special education office (“unique and special needs that go well beyond” district-level programs); and if the allocation would end “litigation from the party involved once and for all” (yes, for this student).
“Any of us could have handicapped children,” moderator Tony Beardsley said, and asked to keep the discussion “on this issue alone.”
“How did you arrive at $233,000?” asked one resident.
That number represents around half, or less, of what it would cost Surry to address the needs for the student’s secondary education, said Herlan, adding that he spent a long time coming up with “accurate ways of measuring needs,” and that under federal law, municipalities are required to provide education for special needs individuals up to the age of 20.
“This is a unique situation in the truest sense of the word,” said Herlan.
When asked, Herlan declined to state the exact amount being spent per year on the student because of confidentiality laws. Another person asked if the $233,000 would cover past services; Herlan replied that the disagreement in the past on how the student’s needs should have been met “would have been completely addressed.”
Immediately following the warrant vote, the school board held a special meeting to allocate $233,000 from its allocated fund balance to fulfill the settlement, approving the motion 4-1 (Walden).
“The school board has devoted a lot of time [to this issue] this past 10 years and are happy it’s resolved,” said Union 93 Superintendent Mark Hurvitt.