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District Seeks To Pare $136,000 Spec.-Ed. Bill

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Every week, a 12-year-old boy gets on a plane and flies hundreds of miles across New York state to a special school for the blind. And his hometown school district picks up the tab--about $98,000 this year.

Though the Mahopac, N.Y., district has for years paid to fly the student to the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia, Superintendent Jerry J. Cicchelli hopes that journey will soon come to an end.

State rules that have allowed the student to attend the state-owned school give the 4,400-student district no say in the matter, he said. He believes the boy could receive an appropriate education much closer to home, at only a fraction of the cost.

Those state rules have long been a sore spot with local administrators, and state officials said last week that they are under review.

Special-education experts say situations like Mahopac's are helping fuel a national backlash against the often complex, expensive, and litigious area of special education.

"Most children are not that costly," said Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boardscq ls Association. "This is government at its worst."

Mahopac officials said the cost this year of educating the boy, who is blind and has physical and mental disabilities, will be about $136,000, though state and federal aid will reduce the district's share.

The cost includes roughly $60,000 in tuition for the state school. The rest goes toward transportation and an aide who travels with the boy, who uses a wheelchair.

For each of its nondisabled students, the district spends an average of $8,571.

Each week the boy travels from his home in Mahopac, about 50 miles north of New York City, to an airport in White Plains. He takes a flight to Rochester and is driven from there to the school in Batavia, which serves 76 students. At the end of each school week, the boy returns home to Mahopac.

Defining 'Least Restrictive'

Federal law requires that students with disabilities be provided a "free, appropriate" education and that they be educated in the "least restrictive environment" possible.

District officials say they want the boy to receive a good education. But they believe he could be more appropriately served at a nearby regional school that draws blind and visually impaired students from a number of neighboring communities.

The regional school would also cost the district substantially less--about $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

The boy went there as a pre~schooler, the superintendent said. Since the school is only about 20 minutes away, the boy would be able to live at home, which district officials say is the least restrictive environment. No blind students in the Mahopac district currently attend neighborhood schools with their non~disabled peers, officials said.

District officials refused last week to identify the boy or his family, and the superintendent at the state school in Batavia declined comment.

While parents and school officials often spar over what constitutes the most appropriate placement for a child, Mahopac's situation points up a policy issue that state education department officials are considering revising.

'We Just Pay the Bill'

For most special-education students, a team of experts in the local district negotiates placement issues with the parents.

But under New York state rules, parents who want their child to attend a state-run school can apply directly to the commissioner of education's office.

The student's records are reviewed and sent on to a team at one of the two state-owned schools for disabled children. Officials at those schools then decide whether the child should enroll there, said Bill Hirschen, a spokesman for the state education department.

Although those decisions affect local districts financially, district administrators currently have no way to appeal.

Mahopac is not alone in seeking a change in that policy, Mr. Hirschen said. Other area districts have complained about the lack of involvement.

"Right now," said Mr. Cicchelli, "we just pay the bill."

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