TestifyingH.537 is a bill currently in progress at the State House.  It has had an initial hearing with the Joint Committee on Education.  H.537 will provide an ex-officio, non-voting seat for a SEPAC member at the table with School Committees/Boards.

Read on for the H.537 FAQ, and download it for sharing below.

What is a SEPAC?

A SEPAC is a Special Education Parent Advisory Council.  The SEPAC is charged with educating and advising the district and families on matters related to Special Education.  SEPACs connect families and promote inclusion and equity in their home districts.

How is that different from a PTO or a Club?
A SEPAC is required by Massachusetts General Law 71B and 603 CMR 28.  Each district and their school committee are responsible for the establishment and support of a SEPAC in their city or town.

What does the current law say?
MGL 71B and 603 CMR 28 state that the duties of the SEPAC, “shall include but not be limited to: advising the school committee on matters that pertain to the education and safety of students with disabilities: meeting regularly with school officials to participate in the planning, development, and evaluation of the school committee’s special education programs.”

Doesn’t that mean that the SEPACs and districts are already communicating?
Unfortunately, while the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides a guidance document for SEPACs, and the charge is clear, the methods for establishing that relationship are not.  There is still widespread misunderstanding of what a SEPAC is and MGL71 B itself, the result of which is an inconsistent application of the law across the commonwealth.

What would this law change?
This bill would clarify the role of the SEPACs, and provide a consistent means of communication across the Commonwealth.

Do any other groups have a seat like this?
Yes.  MGL 71:38M requires a representative or representatives from the student council to be given this exact kind of seat.  Actively involving the student body in school committee discussions gives the members an invaluable perspective on how their votes directly affect our kids.  This bill was modeled directly after MGL 71:38M.

Would this give someone who wasn’t elected the same privileges as someone who was elected?
No.  As an ex-officio seat, this only allows the SEPAC representative to be involved in the public discussions.  It will not give them a vote, nor will it allow them to be included in executive sessions.

Who gets to decide who represents the SEPAC?
The membership of the SEPAC will choose their representative as they choose their executive board.  The SEPAC should decide together how they wish to choose, and be sure to update their bylaws to reflect the new process.

Does this mean the SEPAC is responsible for the Open Meeting Law regulations that the School Committee must follow?
No, the burden for OML would continue to fall upon the school committee itself.  As the SEPAC representative would not be permitted to attend executive sessions, they would not be responsible for closed session rules, either.  The SEPAC representative would simply have to abide by the same code of conduct that committee members already follow.

What if we can’t attend every meeting?
Not every school committee member can attend every school committee meeting.  It is also common for the student representatives to review the packet and decide if there is an issue they wish to speak to.  If not, they can choose to miss a meeting or follow up directly with other committee members. Our goal is not to burden representatives, but to give all  parties a method for communication that is consistent and collaborative.

What if we don’t have anyone willing to be our representative?
There is no penalty, but we hope that the passage of H.537 will encourage the formation of new SEPACs or reawakening of dormant ones.  It’s important to think of this as an opportunity, not a mandate.

Why is this so important to special education families in 2021?
When schools shut down in March of 2020, special education families found themselves in a precarious position.  One of the first directions DESE and Commissioner Riley gave to districts was to use their SEPACs as a way to communicate more efficiently with special education parents.  From closing to reopening to ongoing support and recovery efforts, it is essential that special education families are a part of the conversation going forward.

What can I do?
You can write to the Joint Committee on Education and ask them to report H.537 out of committee favorably.  You can also write to your local representatives and senators and ask them to support the passage of H.537. Then, share with friends who also want to help.

You can find the Joint Committee on Education HERE 
Locate your legislators HERE
Download the H.537 FAQ
Sample Parent/Caregiver H.3911 Support Letter
Sample Ally H.3911 Support Letter