ROCKLAND, Maine — Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent Lew Collins said the district has begun making changes to improve its special education program in the wake of a report that found significant deficiencies.
The problems stem from the high number of students classified as in need of special education. Collins said 21 percent is too high and was the result of inadequate training to evaluate students.
The Maine Department of Education sent RSU 13 a letter on May 10 summarizing areas that are not in compliance with federal regulations. The state conducted the review of RSU 13’s special education beginning in February at the request of Collins.
“There were things that didn’t look right,” said Collins who was hired as superintendent last summer.
Among the most glaring problem, Collins said, was the district’s failure to determine whether a student was eligible for special education services within the required deadline. A decision on eligibility must be made within 45 school days from when a referral is made. They were missing deadlines a third of the time, the state report found.
The district is addressing that deficiency by hiring a second psychologist to evaluate students, he said.
Also, the staff was not trained adequately to determine eligibility, he said. To fix the problem, by teachers and administrators will receive additional training, Collins said.
There are 400 students in RSU 13 who have been found eligible for special education services.That translates to 21 percent of the entire student population.
Collins believes many of those students have incorrectly been classified as eligible for special education. The state average is 15 percent, and the national average is 12 percent, Collins said.
He took over the duties of special education director earlier this year when he found these deficiencies.
There are costs — financially and otherwise — for having too many students in the special education program, Collins said.
“We don’t want people labeled unnecessarily. There is a label and a stigma that the students will carry,” he said.
Janice Breton, the director of special services for the state education department, said she agrees it appears RSU 13 has too high a percentage of students in special education.
Collins said having too many students in the program means students who truly need help are not being served adequately.
The special education budget for RSU 13 for 2012-2013 is $4.2 million out of the district’s overall budget of $26.5 million.
The state’s review also discovered that the district’s methods to determine education plans for special education students was not done properly, Breton said.
The deficiencies could prevent students from getting the extra services they are entitled, she said. Special education services can involve specialized teaching in reading or math, speech therapy or organizational skill training.
The superintendent has nominated Erin Frazier, an assistant special education director in the Portland school system, to be RSU 13’s next special education director.
“Ms. Frazier will have her hands full bringing our district into full compliance with the state and federal regulations that govern special education. We will be much smarter in how we approach eligibility, services and timelines and these efforts will lead to vastly improved services to those students who are truly disabled,” Collins said.
Breton said the district has been very cooperative and is committed to correcting the problems.
The district’s education program had been buffeted by financial problems two years ago when it found it had overspent its budget.