Metuchen School District must combat tuition for out-of-district placements

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METUCHEN – With “egregious” out-of-district placement increases for special education students, the Metuchen School District is looking at ways to become more inclusive.

Tania Herzog, director of special services, presented the proposed special education budget at a Board of Education meeting on March 5.

In the budget, she proposed developing programming in district for the 18- to 21-year-old age group and the possibility of partnering with mental health agencies to provide the resources and support for students in need.

“In the past we have had a large number of students placed out of district to participate in 18- to 21-year-old programming to prepare for transition to adulthood,” she said. “The group currently accounts for 20 percent of our out-of-district placements.”

The proposal for programming for the 18-21 age group, Herzog said, will be “good for the kids, good for the families and it will make the community stronger and more inclusive.”

“It makes sense fiscally for long-term planning especially with our current students in district in our self contained classes as they get older,” she said.

Currently the district has 389 special education students, which make up 17 percent of the student population, Herzog said.

“The amount of students placed out of district has remained fairly consistent over the last few years, but there is a significant projected increase in private school tuitions, which we have no control over,” she said.

Herzog said out-of-district placements is the largest expense for the special education department other than staff salaries.

“It’s difficult to project how many out of district placements we are going to have … it varies from year to year as students move in and students move out,” she said, adding the needs of students evolve and change throughout the years as well.

Herzog said the common reasons students have been recommended for out-of-district placements over the last two years have been due to language impairments and mental health.

“Language impairment students require intervention of speech and language specialists with expertise in multiple methods of communication,” she said.

Included in the special education budget are resources devoted to the district’s commitment to hands on programming in the area of language impairments, Herzog said.

As for mental health, the increases in the amount of students with mental health-related concerns are presenting a crisis in public schools all over the state and country.

“In Metuchen we see the impact of the trends within our school buildings,” she said.

In the past two years, Herzog said five students have been placed out of district for therapeutic services and at least four more students have been identified with similar needs.

“On a daily basis our child study teams, our school counselors and our nurses are challenged with providing intensive services to students struggling with very serious issues like depression, anxiety, school avoidance and sadly threats of self harm,” she said, in addition to managing the needs for all the students in the district.

Herzog said mental health issues not only impact classified students, but also the non-classified students.

“Many districts throughout the state are responding to similar issues with creative programming by partnering with agencies to provide therapeutic programming in our schools,” she said.

Herzog said the outside consultants from the agency, who would be in a director, supervisory-type role, would collaborate with school staff and parents to bring in what is a best fit for the district.

“The [consultants] would be in charge of screening, deal with emergencies, and deal with different level of expertise and support,” she said.

Herzog said it is important to note outside agency consultants would not replace any child study team or counselor.

“They would be supporting the needs of our staff,” she said.

Board member Dan Benderly called the increases in the out of placement tuitions “egregious.”

“In the past, we saw tuitions increase four to five percent,” he said. “This is the first time we are seeing it increase 10 to 12 percent.”

Board members said hard decisions will have to be made as they continue the budget process for the 2019-20 school year.