Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo proposed an increase in pay Tuesday for special education providers who haven’t seen one in almost a decade.
Dinolfo, a Republican, said the 15 percent increase is the right amount to stave off an impending shortage of speech therapists, child psychologists, counselors for parents, and other people who work in preschool special education.
“The reason we’re being so proactive is we want to make sure that we don’t put ourselves, the county, our children, in a crisis situation,” Dinolfo said.
But providers of those services said in some ways, the crisis has already arrived.
In the Greece Central School District, Sue-Ellen Stacey chairs the committee in charge of connecting preschoolers who qualify for special education services with the people who can provide them. There’s a shortage of therapists and counselors now, Stacey said. That means on an average day, dozens of families are waiting to get help.
“Every week I’m having meetings with new children who are found eligible for services,” Stacey said.
Stacey called Dinolfo’s proposal “great news,” saying she expects it will reduce the waitlist by encouraging more therapists to work with preschoolers.
Still, it’s a far cry from the 35 to 40 percent increase that advocates have been urging.
“That would get us to the market rate, so that we can be competitive with hospitals and some of the other places that hire the skilled providers we need,” said Heather Hanson, the chief operating officer at Step-by-Step Developmental Services, which is a preschool special education provider.
Nonetheless, Hanson said, she’s grateful that the county is considering raising rates.
The County Legislature’s Democratic minority leader was less measured. In a statement, Cindy Kaleh called Dinolfo’s framing of the proposal as a proactive measure “laughable.”
“Parents, workers, and child advocates have been asking for this for months,” Kaleh said. “While the end result is something we all have worked for, the process was needlessly drawn out.”
The shortage in special education providers for preschoolers between 3 and 5 years old mirrors a shortage in providers of early intervention services to children from birth to 3.
Both shortages are caused by stagnant reimbursement rates, according to providers, business owners and advocates. But the early intervention rates are set by the state, while counties have some control over reimbursement rates for preschool providers.
Pete Nabozny, policy director at the nonprofit organization The Children’s Agenda, said Dinolfo’s proposal for a hike in pay rates for preschool providers risks drawing people into that sector and away from early intervention.
“Their case mix could change,” Nabozny said. “They might take on more preschool special ed cases because the rate is stronger in that area.”
But not raising rates would likely force those agencies out of business altogether, said Nabozny.
“You really don’t know how it’s all going to play out,” he said. “It’s a very, very complex system.”
Ultimately, to Nabozny, the solution is to “decomplicate” the field. “Fund these two systems, early intervention and preschool special education, at parity with the school-age system,” he said. “What we’re saying is, we need to think of these things as one whole system.”