Unanticipated special education enrollments has the Cranston School Committee looking at a $705,000 budget shortfall early in the fiscal year.
School finance head Joe Balducci told the School Committee at a work session Wednesday night that the shortfall is in the special education tuitions line item in the operating budget.
The district has enrolled 13 students into IEPs with outside placements since the start of the school year, exceeding forecasts. These placements are unpredictable and can swing wildly from year to year and even month to month, school officials said. At the start of the school year last year, the district was looking at a surplus of more than $200,000, for example.
Balducci said the situation represents a "worst case scenario," complicated by the difficult nature of budgeting for special education.
If a student is in a outside placement at the start of the school year, the district immediately encumbers an $80,000 bill and pays it off for the rest of the school year even if the student moves out of the district or leaves the placement and comes back to a Cranston school. There might be some way to recoup some money, but that won't happen until the springtime, Balducci said.
The school district registered eight new special education placements last week alone, said Cheryl Coogan, executive director of pupil personnel services.
The city has about $270,000 in a reserve account for special education contingency funding that the school district could use to offset the deficit.
The fund was slashed from $650,000 to about $150,000 in the budget Mayor Allan W. Fung submitted to the City Council earlier this year. The City Council boosted that figure to $350,000 after shaving money from various line items and boosting expected income estimates from delinquent taxes and other revenue sources.
The superintendent and School Committee members during the budget process warned of potential school deficits next year if there are unexpected special education enrollments mid-year.
Now that it appears to be coming true, School Committee Member Stephanie Culhane said she recalls receiving assurances from city officials that they'd help out if there was a spike in special education enrollments. She said city Finance Director Robert Strom said "don't worry, we'll cover it" during the Finance Committee's budget hearings in the spring and would find the meeting minutes if she had to.
School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi asked Balducci to submit a detailed memo to Strom and the mayor detailing the budget situation. Balducci said he would conference with Strom and the mayor's office about the issue.