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August 19, 2005

Schools for disabled seek boost in tuition funding

From: The Republican, MA - Aug 19, 2004


BOSTON - At the Willie Ross School for the Deaf in Longmeadow, turnover is so high that about about half the licensed staff was hired in the past three years.

Now, about three weeks before the school opens, Executive Director Louis E. Abbate is still struggling to hire a speech and language pathologist and an early childhood teacher. Abbate said the school's average salary for a teacher is $35,000 and starting salaries for teachers are far below the public schools.

"The problem is finding a teacher of the deaf - period, licensed in any state," said Abbate, 55, whose school includes 65 students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Hampered by high turnover of staff and low salaries, private schools for disabled students, including Willie Ross, are working together to prompt improvements. Leaders of an association of private schools are launching a campaign on Beacon Hill to increase their tuition to raise money for retaining teachers by hiking their salaries and for helping students by improving services.

The Massachusetts Association of Chapter 766 Approved Private Schools includes 155 day and residential private schools that educate and treat about 6,400 severely disabled students. Public schools pay for 70 percent of the tuitions of the private schools such as the Willie Ross School for the Deaf in Longmeadow, Brightside in West Springfield, the Curtis Blake Day School in Springfield and the Lake Grove Maple Valley School in Wendell. It could be a tough sell to hike the tuitions at the private schools.

When public schools send disabled students to a private school, the public schools pay about the first $30,000 in tuition. The state reimburses 75 percent of the amount more than the estimated $30,000.

"We already are paying so much for tuitions," said Russell D. Johnston, administrator of special services for West Springfield public schools. "It can be a big burden on the town."

According to the state Department of Education, Chicopee schools sent 45 students to private day or residential schools last year; Greenfield, 8; Holyoke, 59; Northampton, 11; Palmer, 20; Springfield, 198 and West Springfield, 15.

Because turnover of teachers is rapid and pay is low compared to public schools, the private schools for the disabled are forced to hire a high percentage of teachers who aren't licensed in their fields, said James V. Major, executive director of the association of private schools. Libraries, computer networks, textbooks and science laboratories also are lagging at the private schools, Major said.

As a result, students at the private schools are being shortchanged, Major said.

"They are being discriminated against," Major said. "They are being treated unfairly."

The state Legislature approved a 2.66-percent increase in tuition for this upcoming year at the private schools.

The schools are costly because they provide special services that generally aren't available at public schools. Average annual tuition for a day school is $40,000 and for a residential school, about $80,000, Major said.The schools are pushing for annual tuition increases of 8 percent to 10 percent for each of the next three to four years. The schools will be working on a bill with legislators such as Rep. Patricia A. Haddad, D-Somerset, co-chair of the Education Committee.

Daniel Y. Schreier, director of special education for Chicopee schools, said the state should be providing more money to public schools for teaching severely disabled students.

"They are taking a lot of resources from public schools," Schreier said of the private schools. "If that money could be creatively used, then some of the private schools would close and students would be served in public schools. Outcomes would be just as good and sometimes better."

Schreier said he would like to reduce by half the number of students Chicopee sends to the private schools.

Chicopee recently created programs in its public schools to serve mentally ill students in elementary and middle schools. That saves money because those students otherwise would be sent to private schools, Schreier said.

If the state approves the proposed tuition increases at the private schools over several years, it could help generate an additional $133 million a year including $85 million a year to raise the salaries of teachers, Major said. The private schools would also use $22 million in one-time money for textbooks and technology upgrades and $28 million for improving libraries, laboratories and other capital needs.

Public schools would pay $54 million and the state, $41 million. The rest of the cost would primarily be picked up by other states that send students to the schools in Massachusetts, Major said. Currently, because of low salaries, an average of 34 percent of the teachers at the private schools leave each year, compared to 14 percent in public schools, Major said.The average pay of a teacher in the private schools is $31,000, compared to $51,000 in public schools.

Paul M. Quinlan, director of the Curtis Blake Day School, which is affiliated with American International College in Springfield, said his school hasn't been plagued by high turnover of staff. Employees stay because it's a terrific school and small enough for teachers to make an impact, he said.

However, the 21 licensed staff at the school, including 12 special education teachers, only receive an average of about $36,000 a year, Quinlan said.

"I'm dealing with teachers who are highly experienced and ... experts in their field," said Quinlan, whose school includes 80 students, primarily language learning disabled. "I have to pay them considerably less than often a beginning teacher would get in a public school system."

Joseph A. Dupelle, director of special services for Westfield public schools, said he would be opposed to a blanket 8 percent to 10 percent yearly tuition increase for all the private schools.

It costs Westfield public schools between $25,000 and $70,000 a year to send a student to a private day school, Dupelle said.

"I agree there are some (private schools) that probably could use an increase, but we need to look at what they would use the money for," Dupelle said.

Major said that in order to receive a tuition increase, each private school would need to prove its case to the state Department of Education and a division of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance.

Major also cited a report last year by state auditor A. Joseph DeNucci that found cities, towns and regional school districts could win increased federal Medicaid reimbursements for special needs students.

©2005 The Republican