Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald’s call for a state website listing welfare recipients and their addresses is an abhorrent idea, as evidenced by the fact that no legislator, nor Gov. Paul LePage, has stepped up to support it.

In his misguided efforts to shame the poor, Macdonald did hit upon a real concern that lawmakers should devote attention to: the rising costs of special education, especially in service center communities. In Lewiston, those costs rose from $8.5 million in the 2003-2004 school year to $14.2 million in 2013-2014, though the number of K-12 students receiving special education services in Lewiston rose more slowly than the school system’s overall student population.

In explaining to Fox News that he wasn’t going after immigrants, Macdonald criticized families that were moving to Lewiston for special education services. Asked about Somali immigrants in Lewiston, Macdonald said “it’s not them. It’s the domestic people that are coming into our state. And what’s happened here is we have a school system. One of the things about our school system that’s second to none is a special ed education department, which attracts them all.”

This isn’t cause for stigma, but it does strain service center communities, which also are host to homeless shelters, drug treatment facilities, state offices and other facilities that serve those in need. In a Legislature dominated by members from rural parts of the state, many of Maine’s policies that pass are detrimental to these service centers. These lawmakers, for example, strongly support funding for road building but not public transportation, said Jim Damicis of Camoin Associates, a company that helps states and municipalities with economic development projects. They oppose local-option taxes that would help service centers. And a law passed in 2011 directed some of the state’s spending on public education to rural school districts and away from urban districts.

Bill Webster, superintendent of the Lewiston School Department, said the city does attract families from communities that don’t provide the services they need for their children. This is common in service center communities, which offer more than special education services in their public schools. They also have the medical and support services these families need to care for their children, Webster said.

Lewiston devotes the largest share of its school budget to special education of any large district in the state. During the 2013-14 school year, that share was nearly a quarter. The state average was 15.4 percent. In Auburn, across the river from Lewiston, it was 21.1 percent.

Although the Lewiston school department has a comprehensive K-12 autism program, it still has a high out-of-district placement rate for students with autism, Webster said. Overall, the city has 100 students at facilities outside Lewiston, some of them outside Maine. These placements can cost $50,000 per year or more. But they are necessary when the school system cannot provide the level of services a student needs.

The state reimburses school districts for special education costs, but that reimbursement comes two years after districts spend the money. This can create financial uncertainty and strain on communities as these costs fluctuate with the size and composition of the special education population.

While the special education population is growing in Lewiston, it is not statewide. During the 2008-2009 school year, 30,462 students in kindergarten through 12th grade statewide received special education services. In 2014-2015, 29,850 did. However, over the same time period, statewide special education spending rose by more than 10 percent, more than twice the rate of total K-12 educational spending growth.

The cost per special education student has risen as their diagnoses have become more complex.

“Students have more severe issues than in the past,” Jill Adams, executive director of the Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities, said. She noted there are more stressors on families, especially financial, as Maine struggles to recover from the recession. Maine is seeing higher incidences of autism and emotional disabilities, she said. There is a correlation between poverty and learning disabilities, studies have shown.

If public officials such as Macdonald want to help communities like Lewiston, they should stop shaming the poor and children with disabilities and instead advocate for policy changes to boost service center communities, which are the backbone of Maine.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...