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District Is Targeting Special Education Spending

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Each year during budget season, special education at Sag Harbor is scrutinized by a faction of the community concerned over high classification rates and the associated costs of mandated services. But since Lisa Scheffer took the reins of the district’s pupil personnel office just over two years ago, the classification rates have continually dropped and this year the district will realize significant decreases in costs.
New Sag Harbor Superintendent Dr. John Gratto noticed three contracts with special education service providers at the district’s annual re-organizational meeting last month. Together with Scheffer, the two came up with a way to save the district roughly $100,000 by renegotiating one contract, hiring one new employee and choosing a new service provider.
The district has historically contracted with Out East Occupational Therapy for occupational therapy services. An occupational therapist works with students to improve their fine motor skills, such as a student who has trouble holding a pencil or a student who simply can’t sit still. Last year’s contract with Out East cost the district $85,000.
This year the consultants agreed to renegotiate their contract.
“They’ve reduced their contract by $13,500,” said Gratto. “Now we could hire someone at $70,000 including benefits and in the short term that would save us $2,000. But in the long term, if we continue to contract, that $72,000 would be less than we would pay an employee, because salary and benefits go up.”
The district currently has 25 students who require occupational therapy services.
Another contract, with Long Island Developmental Consulting, has been eliminated in favor of creating an in-district position to provide Applied Behavioral Analysis services to roughly 20 students. That move will save the district over $66,000 if they manage to fill the position at a salary of $78,405 including benefits. The contract cost the district $144,900 per year.
The services are geared specifically to children, who are autistic, either severely or slightly, as the spectrum goes.
“You might have a child who acts out, bites or hits or throws tantrums,” said Scheffer. “The ABA person will try to get to the root of the behavior and create a plan to modify it.”
Lastly, the district has chosen to go with a new service provider for inclusion and differentiated instruction in-service training for teachers. The district previously used Lakretz Creative Supportive Services to the tune of $50,000 per year. Gratto said the district will either contract with BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) or with another consultant to provide the same service and save the district roughly $17,000. The training service is available to teachers to assist them in developing different teaching techniques for different students.
As far as classification goes, critics have charged the district with having too high a percentage of classified students. When Scheffer came aboard in 2006, the percentage of classified students in the district was around 20 percent. The next year that number dropped to roughly 18 and this year Scheffer expects only 15 percent of the district’s students to be classified as special needs students.
She attributes the decline in part to a classification policy manual she created, something that did not exist before she arrived. The policy manual clearly states a procedure by which every student is classified.
“There are many steps we take before going to evaluation for a child,” said Scheffer.
She said the district has implemented a number of different intervention strategies to reduce the classification rate. She said the absence of such a practice could have certainly contributed to the high number of classified students in the past.
One of the goals Gratto has identified for the upcoming year is to decrease the number of classified students by at least one percent.
“Currently our rate I believe is 17 percent, but the average in the state is 12 percent,” said the superintendent. “So we would like to continually scrutinize the classification [process] to make sure they are appropriately classified and not over classified.”

Top Photo: Superintendent Dr. John Gratto has made special education a priority.