A growing number of Fairfield special-needs students -- placed in specialized programs outside town -- has prompted a Board of Education budget freeze in an effort to shrink a potential budget gap of up to $1.6 million this year.

School officials updated the Board of Finance on the budget shortfall Tuesday, explaining they had budgeted for 72 outplacement students in the 2013-14, but between October and December of last year, that number jumped to 89 students, upping the costs they are required to pay $955,609 for those programs, so far.

"This is something very, very unusual in my 18 years in Fairfield," Andrea Leonardi, director of special education and pupil services, said Wednesday. Leonardi said she's found that other school districts in the region are facing the same type of increase.

Asked why it's happening, Leonardi said she can't be certain.

"Last year was the most disruptive year any of us can remember," she said, citing Superstorm Sandy and the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Things like that, Leonardi said, can put more stress on already vulnerable students. For example, students who were displaced from their homes because of damage caused by Superstorm Sandy may have lost that foundation of feeling, "We are safe," she said.

"I think it created an atmosphere where vulnerable children experienced great distress and that is now manifesting itself," Leonardi said, requiring specialized programs not offered in town by the public schools. But, she added, "That's my hypothesis; there's really no way to test it."

Superintendent of Schools David Title expects the spending freeze will bring savings of between $300,000 and $500,000, but the worst-case scenario could be a shortfall of between $1.2 million and $1.6 million in this year's budget.

"Other decisions will have to be made that will be less popular," Board of Education Chairman Philip Dwyer said Wednesday. "You still have to put teachers in each classroom, you still have to pay the electricity and gas bills."

Town officials have pledged to work with the school district in an effort to help bridge that budget gap, finance board Chairman Thomas Flynn said.

Flynn said Wednesday the board has asked school officials to provide more specifics on where they feel savings can be found within this year's budget and the impact those cuts will have. He also asked that the budget issue be monitored on a weekly basis.

"We're going to work with the administration on the town side," Flynn said. "We will look at what our options are for helping them bridge that gap."

He said that several years ago when the town found itself in a financial bind, the Board of Education came to its aid to help fill the deficit gap. "At the end of the day, both sides are working for the taxpayer," he said.

And if the spike in outplacements, particularly because of students with mental-health issues, proves to more than a one-year anomaly, Leonardi said the issue then truly becomes a communitywide concern.

"I'm hopeful this is a blip on the screen," she said. "If not, we may have to go, as a community, back to the drawing board. This isn't just an education issue."

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