December 1st, 2011

Deficit jeopardizes special education in E. Providence

The city of East Providence, R.I., owes Bradley Hospital $4.5 million for in-district special education, a debt that has jeopardized the program and called attention to the school district’s $7 million budget deficit that could further erode special education services and staffing as well as send the city into receivership.

In a letter dated Sept. 9 and in an Oct. 24 appearance before the E. Providence school committee, Bradley President and CEO Daniel Wall threatened to end the Bradley Partnership program if a payment plan wasn’t forthcoming. According to the letter, printed in published reports, the last payment the city made to Bradley was $67,842 in May, much less than the average monthly bill of $330,000.

In the video of the Oct. 24 school committee meeting posted on the E. Providence city Web site, Wall said, “I’m here to make a personal plea to the school committee to execute an addendum to the contract we’ve put together following two very productive meetings with [School Committee] Chairman [Charles] Tsonos and Superintendent [Ed] Daft and his staff to pay the $4.5 million that the school department and the city owes to Bradley Hospital for services provided through the end of September. We understand, appreciate and are troubled by the financial situation in East Providence, but we also want to continue this arrangement…. We would have another crisis immediately, frankly, if the agreement is not signed. We cannot go on any longer not knowing when we’re going to get paid.”

Wall said the first installment of the three-year payment plan is $1.5 million due the second week in November. Nov. 10 happens to be the deadline imposed by the state auditor for the city to come up with a balanced fiscal 2012 budget. According to the Nov. 1 city council meeting, the $7.2 million budget deficit could be whittled to about $4 million via $2.3 million from a property tax increase and potential savings from city unions’ concessions on health plans and a new collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union. The current agreement expired Oct. 31, the end of the fiscal year.

Located in E. Providence, Bradley Hospital is the country’s oldest psychiatric hospital devoted to children and adolescents. It has been running special education programs in the city for many years, but the Bradley Partnership, started August 2009, was something new. It brought some 100 eligible special needs students, out of 190 who were being taught outside the community, and in some cases out of state, back to E. Providence schools. While at first, they would be their own small cohorts with dedicated classrooms and behavior specialists (most provided by Bradley), the ultimate goal was to reintegrate them into mainstream classes. At the same time, they would interact with their peers in the lunchroom, on the playground and at assemblies.

Another goal was to save money on expensive out-of-district tuitions. At the school committee meeting, Wall said the program has saved the district $600,000 a year. E. Providence serves over 5,500 students; about 22 percent are identified as having special needs.

Tsonos says that as of last December, four out of five school committee members were new and that the previous committee acknowledged it had paid past year bills with current year funds, which resulted in the district being “perpetually in the hole.” The situation with Bradley, he says, while still unresolved, is being worked out with the city, the school department, its attorney and the state. So far, he says, there’s been no disruption in service to the children.

“It’s a very delicate situation with a lot of moving parts,” Tsonos says. “We all want to continue the program and rework it so it’s financially sustainable.”

At the same Oct. 24 meeting, Kathleen Mullen, finance director of the Providence-based Groden Center, told the school committee that E. Providence owed $900,000 for tuitions for 18 special needs students and they’ve received no payment since March.

“We’re willing to work with the city, but we need something coming forward and we can’t seem to be able to get that,” Mullen said. “It’s scary for us to read in the paper there is no money.”

By Nan Shnitzler

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