Testimony Before the Legislature's Joint Committee on the Public Schools (October 2003)


The county special services school districts located in Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Cape May, Gloucester, Mercer, Salem and Warren counties provide a wide range of educational services for students with disabilities. Together, the county special services districts provide full-time placements for about 4,500 of the state’s most severely disabled students. These students typically have multiple disabilities, autism, behavioral disorders, and severe cognitive and physical impairments. They require customized educational programs and individualized instruction, and many need extensive therapy and medical services as well.

The eight county special services school districts also provide cost-effective regional services that help local school districts address the diverse needs of classified students who attend their home schools. Additional shared services provided to local districts help reduce duplication and produce substantial local costs savings in administrative and regular education areas.

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Testimony Before the NJ Legislature,
Joint Committee on the Public Schools

Presented by Regina Swierc, Superintendent,
Warren County Special Services School District

October 2, 2003

Good afternoon. I am Regina Swierc, Superintendent of the Warren County Special Services School District. I am also the chairperson of the Joint Council of County Special Services School Districts, the association that represents all of the special services school districts in the state. This is the first time I have testified before the State Legislature. I appreciate this opportunity tell you a bit about New Jersey’s eight county-based special services school districts and how we are responding to the challenges facing special education.

The special services school districts located in Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Cape May, Gloucester, Mercer, Salem and Warren counties provide a wide range of educational services for students with disabilities. Together we provide full-time placements for about 4,500 of the state’s most severely disabled students. In addition, our schools offer cost-effective regional services for other public school districts.

Our students represent the extreme end of the special education spectrum, and they account for less than one-half of one percent of the statewide public school enrollment. They have multiple disabilities, autism, behavioral disorders, and severe cognitive and physical impairments. For example, many of our students need wheelchairs and other devices to get around, and they have a difficult combination of serious medical problems and mental handicaps that render them unable to communicate verbally or meet their own feeding and toileting needs. Many also have extreme emotional disorders, which make them volatile and often violent in the classroom.

In addition to customized educational programs and individualized instruction, these students often require extensive therapy and medical services as part of their school day. Generally, their disabilities are what we call "low-incidence," which means that is difficult and very expensive for individual districts to provide these highly specialized programs and services for one or two students.

However, because of their regional focus, our districts can provide top-quality public school services to these students with severe disabilities, who range in age from preschool to adulthood. We employ specialized teachers, classroom aides, personal assistants, physical and occupational therapists, and support staff to meet their academic, physical, emotional and social needs. Our programs incorporate many types of assistive technology (examples), and often include a vocational training component.

Our goal is to serve students with severe disabilities in the "least restrictive environment," while addressing the wide range of needs identified in the student’s Individualized Educational Plan or IEP. We strongly support ongoing efforts to include more students with disabilities in regular classroom settings where they will interact with non-disabled peers, and our districts seek opportunities to use this approach whenever it will benefit our students.

My own district is unique among the special services districts in that we do not operate our own school. Rather, we provide all of our programs at 11 local district sites throughout Warren County. For a rural county like ours, this approach provides the best of both worlds – cost-effective, high-quality services coupled with opportunities to include disabled students in mainstream classrooms and other activities with regular education students.

However, mainstream classes cannot always meet the needs of students with multiple and severe disabilities. That is why parents, who are dedicated and passionate advocates for their children, often prefer that they be educated in a specialized setting geared to their specific needs. As New Jersey embraces inclusive education, we urge the Legislature to be alert to extreme philosophies that push inclusion as a universal approach and would deny the state’s most severely disabled pupils these essential programs. We ask that you continue to support specialized public schools and programs with a proven record of helping students with severe disabilities develop essential academic, cognitive, communication, and life skills.

I know the Legislature hears a great deal about the rising cost of special education in New Jersey, and the 8 special services districts share your concern. Small classes, individual aides, therapy services, new technology, and specialized equipment are very expensive, and we recognize that these costs can strain local district budgets. However, providing these services on a regional basis is far more cost-effective than doing so in most individual local districts.

With an eye on cost efficiency, the county special services districts also go beyond direct educational programs to provide a wide range of other services to local school districts. Shared special education services enable all local districts to address the diverse needs of classified students who attend their home schools. And, other types of shared services reduce duplication and produce substantial local costs savings in administrative and regular education areas.

For example, my district provides coordinated transportation services for all Warren County school districts, which increases efficiency and reduces the cost of special education and nonpublic transportation. Because many of the districts in our county are quite small, we also contract with districts to provide child study team services, as well as speech, occupational and physical therapy services. This eliminates the need for many local districts to hire these mandated staff members individually when they don’t need full-time services.

Shared services offered in other counties include county-wide preschool handicapped programs, nonpublic school services, nursing services, and professional development. These specialized services are delivered to local districts on a less expensive regional basis, rather than each district having to provide its own. For your information, I have attached to my testimony a complete list of the shared services offered by the 8 county special services districts. Additional services are being added all the time, in response to requests from our local districts.

In closing, I would like to extend to each of you an open invitation to visit my district or one of the others to get a first-hand look at our evolving array of programs and services for New Jersey’s most severely disabled children and adults. It would be an experience well worth your time and effort. I think you will see that the county special services school districts are a critical resource for students, parents, and local district partners, providing outstanding learning opportunities as well as shared services that enhance local district efficiency. Thank you for this opportunity to speak today. I will be happy to respond to any questions.


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