Making its way through the NH Legislature is an exciting new special education bill proposed by Rep. Michelle St. John of Hillsborough District 27. HB 1743, as it is currently known, would require all New Hampshire schools to establish a Special Education Parent Advisory Council, also known as a “SEPAC.”
The bill facilitates communication between parents of the SEPAC and the district through meetings that must occur at least twice per year. The bill also seeks to educate parents and students by mandating that school districts offer at least one information session each year for parents and students to inform them of their rights under state and federal law.
Working closely with Rep. St. John is the SEPAC bills’ fiercest champion, Karen Belmonte (N.H. Leadership Class of 2019) of Hollis, NH. Rep. St. John credits Karen with the inception of the bill. “If it weren’t for Karen reaching out to me, the bill wouldn’t have happened,” she said.
The two were introduced during the 2019 NH Leadership Series Citizenship session. The idea for the bill arose amidst conversations between Rep. St. John and Belmonte, who, like many parents in her district, had been frustrated by a lack of communication with her children’s school.
Supporting Rep. St. John’s efforts, Karen researched a law in Massachusetts (Mass. Gen. Laws Chapter 71B, § 3), from which the current NH SEPAC bill is modeled. Karen studied SEPACs of various Massachusetts’ school districts and interviewed participating parents. This informed an understanding of how such a bill might impact NH school districts and families.
During the fall of 2019, Rep. St. John drafted the bill and enlisted the help of Jennifer Bertrand, who, along with Karen and Bonnie Dunham, consulted with Rep. St. John to refine the language of the bill.
By December of 2019, the bill was referred to the NH House Education Committee. In preparation for the public hearing, Karen reached out to her contacts in the NH Leadership community for written and oral testimony. The hearing was well attended by supporters, including parents from various school districts, and ABLE NH. Although it was her first time, Karen provided compelling testimony telling her personal story and explained why the concerns of those opposed were unfounded.
Despite some opposition from various education associations, there was a strong showing of legislative support for the SEPAC bill. After a worrisome hearing delay, it passed the House Education Committee on March 3 with a 16-3 vote, and, after amendment, the bill swiftly passed on the House floor on March 12 with over two-thirds of the state representatives voting in favor. Apparently, the bill was so worthy of committee approval, Rep. St. John observed that, after hearing testimony, several members of the House Education Committee were surprised it wasn't already a law.
While the bill has a promising path, there is still more work to be done. It must first pass the Senate Education Committee before it can be introduced for a vote in the Senate. Thanks to Rep. St. John’s and Karen’s efforts, and the behind-the-scenes support from others like Jennifer Bertrand and Bonnie Dunham, there is a solid chance that this will happen, and that NH have will have a special education parent advisory committee for every school district.
According to Karen, “This bill will improve communication and help families. If my child’s school district had a SEPAC when we first entered the disability community, it would have helped me better navigate the special education process and access community resources. It is really exciting to think about how this bill could affect families in such a positive way.”
Rep. St. John, a staunch advocate for education, agrees “I wanted to sponsor a bill that was rooted in good policy, and the [margin of the House] vote indicates that it’s good legislation. I think we have a strong chance of getting this bill signed into law.”