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A Long Way To Go

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Each Monday morning, a 12-year-old blind boy living in Mahopac, N.Y., is driven to White Plains to catch a flight to Rochester. From there, he is driven to Batavia, home to the 76-student New York State School for the Blind. Come Friday, the boy returns the same way he came. For years, his hometown school district has picked up a large share of the tab--about $98,000 this year--but officials there are tired of doing so and have made no secret about it.

Mahopac Superintendent Jerry Cicchelli believes the boy could receive an appropriate education much closer to home, at only a fraction of the cost. But state rules that allow the student to attend the Batavia school have given the 4,400-student district no say in the matter. Those rules, long a sore spot with school district administrators like Cicchelli, are now under review.

National observers say situations like Mahopac's have begun to fuel a backlash against the often complex and expensive area of special education. Louis Grumet, executive director of the New York State School Board's Association, is among the disgruntled. "This is government at its worst,'' he says.

Mahopac officials say the total cost this year of educating the boy, who is blind and has physical and mental disabilities, will be about $136,000--$60,000 for tuition, the rest for transportation and a personal aide. Although state and federal aid offset the cost, the lion's share falls on the district. For each of its nondisabled students, the school system spends an average of $8,571 a year.

Federal law requires that students with disabilities be provided a "free, appropriate'' education in the "least restrictive environment'' possible. Mahopac 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. That school would also cost the district substantially less--about $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

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 state-owned schools for children with disabilities. Officials at those schools then decide whether the child should enroll there, says Bill Hirschen, a spokesman for the state education department. Although those decisions affect districts financially, they currently have no way to appeal.

Mahopac is not alone in seeking a change in the policy, Hirschen says. Other districts in the state also have complained about their lack of involvement in the decisionmaking.

"Right now,'' superintendent Cicchelli says, "we just pay the bill.''

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