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Metuchen schools able to save on out-of-district placement tuition with new special education programs

METUCHEN – In just a matter of months, the impact of implementing specialized programs for students in the 18- to 21-year-old age group has benefited the Metuchen School District not only in a cost-effective way, but the programs allow the district to bring students back home.

The preliminary 2020-21 school budget reflects an approximate $450,000 decrease in out-of-district placements from $2.54 million in the 2019-20 school year to $2.07 million this school year. The district has no control over out-of-district placement tuition, according to Tania Herzog, director of Special Services for the Metuchen School District.

Last year, Herzog identified an immediate need for programming for students 18 to 21 with developmental disabilities.

With the support of the Board of Education, the district implemented its first specialized transition class in September, which allowed the district to keep a number of students in district.

While out-of-district tuition remains the largest expense in the district’s Department of Special Education Services’ budget other than staff salaries, the reduction of out-of-district placements is a testament of Herzog and the administration’s leadership, said Board of Education President Justin Manley.

“It’s so important to have these students here, amongst their peers, close to home,” he said.

The district currently has 368 students with disabilities. Herzog said it is difficult to project how many out-of-district placements the district may have from students moving in and out of the district, the evolving needs of students throughout the school year and unanticipated factors.

School Business Administrator Michael Harvier said the Department of Special Education Services is proposing a 0.9% increase from $3.12 million last school year to $3.15 this year.

“I can’t remember a time we had less than a 1% increase in special education,” he said, noting the special education numbers are fluid. “This could change tomorrow, but as of today the programs that we have implemented are working and students are getting a better education.”

Along with programming for 18- to 21-year-olds, the district implemented a partnership with Effective School Solutions [ESS] for therapeutic programs at the high school in May 2019.

ESS, according to its website, provides innovative clinical programs for districts seeking to reduce costs while increasing the quality of their in-district education for students with emotional and behavioral problems.

With public support for a $700,000 second budget question in November 2019, the district was able to broaden ESS services as well as bring in Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care for therapeutic services at Campbell Elementary and Edgar Middle schools and First Children Services to provide therapy groups and interim counseling.

The number of student referrals for special education reduced from 79 to 58 and classified students decreased from 389 to 368, according to mental health initiative district data from the 2018-19 school year to the 2019-20 school year.

Students on home instruction due to mental health issues decreased from 14 to 10 and mental health referrals to families reduced from approximately 50 to 20.

The number of special education referrals primarily due to emotional concerns increased from 10 to 11, the percentage of special education referrals, which include emotional concerns decreased from 22% to 9%, the number of students placed out of district during the current school for therapeutic services decreased from 4 to 2, and the percentage of out-of-district students primarily placed for therapeutic services decreased from 37% to 34%, according to district data.

The board introduced a preliminary 2020-21 budget at a meeting on March 10, which calls for four additional special education teachers across all four district schools to keep up with the new mental health initiatives as students move up in grades.

The proposed budget totals $42.17 million, up 4.46% over the 2019-20 budget and includes a $39.96 million tax levy.

A public hearing on the proposed 2020-21 school budget will be held on April 28. The district requested an enrollment adjustment, which is based on unhoused students, to go beyond the 2% tax cap.

The district received $263,750 more in state aid from $1.53 million in 2019-20 to $1.80 million for this year.

Harvier said township ratables have increased $22 million. For the average assessed house at $206,645, the proposed tax rate will increase $30 from last year and homeowners will pay $7,867, or 0.4% over last year.

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