From left, Department of Education’s Courtney Belolan, director of policy and government affairs; Commissioner Pender Makin; and Dr. Megan Welter, associate commissioner of public education, testify before a joint committee about the department’s planned Child Development Services reform Thursday in the Cross State Office Building in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Maine’s top education official wants to shift the state’s responsibility for helping disabled children onto local school districts.

Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin in a presentation Thursday told the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee that she wants local school districts, not the state, to be responsible for providing disability services.

But lawmakers seemed skeptical, asking how they can be confident the state will provide sufficient financial support and protect local school districts from taking on the fiscal burden of educating and serving all 3- to 5-year-old children with disabilities. They also asked how local school districts – many of which do not currently offer pre-K – will provide services and how current CDS employees’ jobs will be protected.

CDS is responsible for providing disability services to children from birth until they reach the K-12 school system, but for years it has been failing to meet its legal obligation to provide those services, and repeated legislative attempts to reform the system have failed.

One of the biggest difficulties has been in getting the support of superintendents who are concerned about assuming the fiscal and actual responsibility for providing disability services, said Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland.

He said he wants a fairly high level of certainty that the state will minimize the local financial impact.


Superintendents and CDS employees who spoke with the Press Herald outside of Thursday’s presentation said they are concerned the plan will not provide adequate support to school districts and will fail to resolve some of the major challenges CDS faces.

Gov. Janet Mills has indicated her support for the idea. “Every other state in the nation educates pre-K children with disabilities through their public school systems. Maine should do the same,” the governor said in a written version of her State of the State address on Tuesday. “It will take work and it will take time – but, fundamentally, it will be better for Maine children.”

She encouraged lawmakers to “give this proposal your full consideration.”


CDS is struggling to adequately serve children from birth to age 6, but its primary failures are in supporting 3- to 5-year-olds, who are served separately from younger children. Preschool-aged children with autism, developmental disabilities and other challenges who are supposed to receive supports like speech, occupational and physical therapy are being left on waitlists for months, sometimes years.

Some children age out of CDS before ever receiving the help they need and are legally entitled to. In October, 550 children, or roughly 18% of CDS’ clients, were going without services, state officials said Thursday.


CDS’ failure to meet the needs of children has long been known, but the agency gained renewed attention in November after 96% of its employees voted that they had no confidence in their director, Roberta Lucas, who was not at Thursday’s presentation.

And now the federal government has caught wind of the Department of Education’s failure to comply with federal law requiring states to provide appropriate services to children with disabilities. As a result, the U.S. Department of Education is taking a close look at CDS during its routine audit of Maine’s pre-K through 12th grade special education system and could come in to fix the system if Maine fails to do so, Makin said at a meeting with employees in January.

As it stands now, CDS is an independent agency under the Maine Department of Education. It is responsible for making sure that young children get the support and services they are legally entitled to and need to succeed in life and fully participate in the public education system. It is charged with evaluating children, deciding if and what services they need, and connecting them with the appropriate providers and programs.

Makin’s proposal would restructure how the agency provides services for 3- to 5-year-olds while keeping CDS intact. The agency would retain responsibility for providing disability services to kids from birth until their 3rd birthday and remain available to support school districts in providing services for kids 3 to 5.

The proposal outlines a three-year timeline for moving those responsibilities to Maine’s public school districts. By the 2026-27 school year, schools would be legally required to make sure children are receiving appropriate services either in-house or by contracting with private preschools or service providers.

The state would provide school districts funding to help them take on this mammoth task.


In the first year, the state would pay the entire cost of educating 3- to 5-year-old children with disabilities. In the years following, the cost would be split between the state and local school districts, which is likely to impact local property taxes. The state would set aside an additional $24 million to support the transition.

It also would allow children under 3 who already are being served by CDS to continue with that programming past their third birthday and loosen CDS eligibility guidelines to allow more children under 3 to receive services, a section of the plan applauded by legislators.

CDS has historically been more successful in providing services to children from birth up to 3 years of age.


Makin said she hopes the plan will “perhaps start to unwind some of the harm that has been done over the years.”

But some CDS employees are less optimistic.


“I don’t feel like it’s going to resolve the issues because regardless for who is responsible for delivering (free and appropriate education) the circumstances are going to be the same,” said Colleen Brown, who has been a CDS employee since 2017.

“There aren’t enough providers, aren’t enough ed techs, aren’t enough qualified staff and people to meet the needs of children. When I read between the lines, it just seems like a way to force public schools to take on this burden.”

Ultimately, Brown understands why it would be beneficial to hand over CDS’ current responsibilities to school districts. But without universal pre-K and the shortage of educators and specialists, she doesn’t see how it will help anything, she said.

Some superintendents say they are worried about the costs.

Machias schools Superintendent Scott Porter said he wants 3- and 4-year-old children to be served appropriately and knows CDS is struggling, but that he’s concerned about bringing additional students into his school district, creating the physical space appropriate for serving young kids, and putting an additional burden on taxpayers.

“For us to take on the work of CDS is going to be a very big task,” Porter said. “There’s no question about it. I’m not willing to jump right in and agree.”

The Education and Cultural Affairs committee will hold a work session on Makin’s proposal and decide whether it wants to create a bill to implement those changes.

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