WESTPORT — More than a dozen parents of special needs students are speaking up after learning about potential changes or budget cuts to the district’s Special Education Department.

“It’s not easy for any of us to come up here and speak publicly on these issues,” special education PTA Co-Chair Sivan Hong told Board of Education members at their Tuesday meeting. “They are profoundly personal, at times deeply painful, and still carry a stigma in our society.”

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Concerns arose after a Jan. 10 work session explored modifying the current administration models at town schools, in an effort to make cuts as the BOE looks to increase its budget by 3.5% this year. Special needs administrators could be affected by these changes.

Hong said special needs parents’ willingness to speak on record is a testament to how strongly they supported the current model. While she understands the district faces a challenging budget season, Hong argued cuts should be made with deep consideration.

“We’ve heard time and time again that tough decisions need to be made,” she said. “Those decisions should be made with a sense to both head and heart.”

Several parents echoed Hong’s sentiments, highlighting the current model’s positive impact and claiming the presence of special education administrators has lessened legal fees for the district.

“We all understand tightening the budget, but there comes a tipping point where you weaken the system to the point of damaging it,” said Linda Lipner, a Westport parent.

On a separate note, board members stressed the importance of mitigating litigation and settlement costs related to special education cases. The district has budgeted $250,000 in legal fees for the 2020-21 school year, up from $212,000 budgeted last year.

“What’s happening that we are seeing such continuous increases. And what can we do as a board to help support that number going in the opposite direction?” BOE Vice Chair Jeannie Smith asked.

Ann Leffert, who is filling in for Assistant Superintendent Tina Mannarino, said the best way to avoid a legal conversation is the ground work.

“I think it’s the on the ground work that will help some of that,” Leffert said. “Through communication, through problem-solving and continuing to engage families in the process.”

Interim Superintendent David Abbey said a notion of stability and leadership will also be helpful in regulating costs. Around 650 students, or 13% of the schools population, receive special needs services.

“The way the law is structured in Connecticut, the burden is on the district to prove they have the correct program for a student,” Abbey said.

The majority of the legal services costs are settlements, which Abbey said can involve covering costs for parents.

“Parents have a right to exercise due process,” Abbey said. “It’s part of the law, and by necessity it’s also an expensive part of the law.”

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com