MIDCOAST — Proposed changes to the state’s Child Development Services have local school districts both concerned and optimistic about the program’s future.

Child Development Services typically serves children with disabilities between the ages of 3 and 5, providing them with special support depending on their needs. Under the new proposal by the Maine Department of Education, those services would be shifted to the local level.

According to a release by the Maine DOE, new responsibilities assumed by school districts would include case management, evaluation, eligibility determination, and more.

How quickly those services would change over, and the cost districts would bear, is still relatively unknown.

Those factors could have a big impact, depending on how much funding the state provides. An additional challenge arises depending on the number of students to be served. If the number is large enough, additional space may be needed.

“We’re not philosophically opposed to the idea, we’re just concerned about costs and space,” said Justin Keleher, director of special services for Regional School Unit 1, which serves Bath, Woolwich, Arrowsic, and Phippsburg.

Each community serves younger students differently. “We want to know the funding mechanism, as well as where we would potentially put these programs,” Keleher said.

Regional School Unit 5, which covers Freeport, Durham, and Pownal, would also have to grapple with the changes. Forty-three students are served by CDS in RSU 5, as of September.

RSU 5 Superintendent Dr. Becky Foley said the move to local responsibility is something that could likely help children, as it could result in earlier identification of students with special needs. She added that the funding would be key to the program.

“We need to have the financial support, and I think for a lot of schools there is probably concern about space,” she said. “One of my understandings is the reason that they’re recommending the move is that CDS is in significant financial trouble as it currently exists.”

Local services would likely be beneficial, but shifting the entire cost over to local districts would be difficult. She added that they are taking a wait and see approach. “I think we’re just waiting to see how it plays out at that level,” she said.

Similar questions arose in Brunswick during a school board meeting on Sept. 27 to discuss the potential changes and what – if any – action they should take on the issue. In Brunswick, 86 children were identified and served under CDS in 2016. In 2017, that number dropped to 67.

Director of Student Services for Brunswick Barbara Gunn said she was cautiously optimistic about the program, but concerned at a seeming lack of direction from the state. “The department says they have a plan; I don’t know what that plan is,” she said.

She added that the program would be beneficial for students if implemented correctly, but also that the state may be pursuing the change for the “wrong reasons.”

“I don’t believe they’re doing it because it is necessarily good for kids,” she said. “I think they’re having a hard time with staffing for this, they’re having a hard time with transportation, they’re having a hard time with money. Those are not the right reasons to do this.”

Brunswick School Board decided to draft a letter to make sure the state understands their thoughts. School Board Vice-Chair James Grant said he’d rather be ahead of any potential legislation, than responding to legislation already far along in the process.

Brunswick also has to consider whether they should add space for CDS programs in its new elementary school. The locally-funded project recently passed a referendum vote in June, and currently has four preschool education rooms. Those rooms may need to be expanded on if CDS students are shifted to local facilities.

Brunswick Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said he hopes the state moves forward thoughtfully and implements things in a slow manner, so funding and resources can be planned out.
“It would be certainly quite an undertaking for not just Brunswick, but any school district or department in Maine,” he said.