The LePage administration wants local school districts to start providing special education services for about 2,500 3- to 5-year-olds with disabilities and developmental delays who currently receive the support through a $39 million state program.

Under a bill the Maine Department of Education plans for next year’s legislative session, the state’s Child Development Services program would eventually stop providing services such as speech and occupational therapy, psychological services and others to young children with disabilities, autism or other needs that, left unaddressed, could grow into more significant problems once they reach school.

School districts would have to add to their existing special education programs to serve the 3- to 5-year-olds, while the state would retain the responsibility of serving infants and toddlers.

Maine is among the only states where school districts don’t provide special education services to children once they reach age 3, so the change would bring Maine more into the national mainstream. But it would be the first time Maine public schools would have this responsibility, raising major questions for local districts that currently lack the staff and, often, the space needed to serve a new population of kids.

“If you take RSU 22, how many children would this be for us?” said Rick Lyons, superintendent of Regional School Unit 22, which serves Hampden, Winterport, Newburgh and Frankfort. “Do we have the accommodations for the children? Do we have to absorb the fiscal responsibility of the children’s educational needs? So, what’s the landscape for us? Those are very significant questions.”

Staff from Child Development Services and the state Department of Education started informing local school officials about their restructuring plan late this week, taking many school officials by surprise.

“There should have been a dialogue before this initiative was advanced,” Lyons said.

The department hasn’t yet laid out a plan for transferring the responsibility of early intervention services to local schools, and it hasn’t developed a plan for funding the services once they leave the state-run Child Development Services, a program with a history of cost overruns. The fate of about 400 Child Development Services employees located around the state is also unclear.

“We’ve talked with some of the districts over the past week,” said Jan Breton, director of special services at the Department of Education. “What we’re trying to tell them is, ‘It’s very early in the process in terms of exactly what the transition would look like.’”

Breton said she expects the transition would take place over the course of a couple years, and she said the state funding that’s currently allocated to Child Development Services through the state budget would instead flow to local school districts through the public school funding formula.

Reorganizing the way the services are delivered, she said, could address a number of problems affecting Child Development Services in recent years. Those include a shortage of service providers, a waitlist for services and cost overruns.

“We don’t have enough personnel. We don’t have enough money,” she said. “I’m just optimistic that we can make a dent in some of this.”

In addition to providing services to 3- to 5-year-olds, school districts would also become responsible for screening children at those ages to determine if they’re eligible for services.

“For me, personally, I really support the notion of schools being more involved with 3- to 5-year-olds, but it really does come down to funding,” said Jim Hodgkin, superintendent of the Central Lincoln County School System, which covers seven midcoast towns in Lincoln County, many of which receive the lowest potential amount of state aid because of their high property values. “Most of my towns are minimum receivers. It could potentially place an undue hardship on the local taxpayers.”

One advantage to local schools providing special services to young children, he said, is the potential for continuity. Young children receiving services wouldn’t have to switch to new providers and an entirely new system when they reach school.

“It’s a better model than we have currently,” said Breton of the Department of Education.

The state spent $39 million on Child Development Service in 2016 to cover services for children from birth to age 5, which exceeded the amount lawmakers had budgeted for the program by $2.1 million. While the federal government covered about 15 percent of Child Development Services costs in 2016 and the program can recoup some costs by billing health insurance providers and the state’s Medicaid program, the state General Fund covers the largest portion: $28.5 million in 2016.

The state relied on contractors, not state staff, to provide about 68 percent of services in 2016, according to the Child Development Services annual report.

Shifting much of the responsibility for Child Development Services to local school districts would mark the second major restructuring of the program in the last decade.

Child Development Services provides services through nine regional sites located throughout the state. Before the state asserted more centralized control over the program in the final years of the Baldacci administration, those regional sites largely operated independently of each other, with boards overseeing each one, said Jim Rier, a former Maine education commissioner who previously oversaw school finance at the Department of Education. The different regional sites often paid different rates for the same services, and they rarely collaborated with each other.

“It begged for more consistent oversight and organization,” Rier said. “That is still, I’m sure, a challenge now.”

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