Lancer Letter: Special Education Testimony

Categories:  News    Opinions
Friday, October 25th, 2019 at 3:22 PM

As previously reported, School Board President Carrie Crow and I recently testified before the state commission on special education funding. This testimony provides some specifics of our district. I am not including my suggestions to the commission regarding the formula, as my intent is to just provide you with specifics.

Let me cut to the chase: special education is out of control. It is the tail that wags the dog, both on a programmatic level and a financial level.

Our district receives about half our revenue from the state, and half from local taxes. Despite what has been highly diligent and conservative financial management over the decades, our long-term financial forecast projects insolvency for our district as early as 2023. Three uncontrollable costs are at the root of this projection: pension payments, charter school costs and special education costs. Today, of course, we are addressing the special education part of this out-of-control train.

If you look at Appendix A, you can see clearly that our costs for special education have steadily escalated in recent years while our subsidy has changed very little. We spend approximately $3 million more than our subsidy.

Board President Carrie Crow: These escalating costs are having an impact on our local taxpayers. Using the 2018-2019 budget as an example, we saw an increase in spending for special education of $425,408. That year we increased our taxes .12 mills which only brought us $103,440. Our increase in basic eduction formula state subsidy for 2018-2019 was $107,000. So you can see, we just can’t keep pace with the increase of special education costs. I assure you, our board like all boards, does not want to raise taxes, however we have no choice.

You may say, well then, cut special education costs. I will tell you that one thing I and my fellow board member have learned is this: when it comes to special education, we are out of the loop. The over-regulation and procedural pre-occupation that goes into the program drives what we can and cannot do. The wide latitude given to parents to make (and receive) demands for services costs a great deal of money. We are forced to just pay out, or face long, protracted proceedings that will just cost us more. As board members, we feel helpless when it comes to special education because the law has made it that way. As a parent of two children in my district, I also see programs we cannot invest in, or cannot commence, because we must concentrate so much of our funding to special education.

Superintendent Richard Scaletta: In addition to the issue Mrs. Crow mentioned, the chart at Appendix B provides some insight. While comparing the 2008-2009 school year to 2018-2019, the same years covered in the chart in Appendix A, you can see we had a slight drop in overall student enrollment (82 students). However, the number of special education students increased by 54.

You can also see in the chart that our autistic population has doubled and the percentage of students with emotional disturbances has increased by 28%. These two populations, along with the population of students with intellectual disabilities, require the most costly services in the form of extra personnel: aides, counselors, job coaches, behavior therapists, etc. Additionally, the unfunded mandate for transition services to the world of work costs us more for job coaches and transportation. The mandate that we maintain many potentially disruptive students in the general population simply requires a great deal of money for personnel to serve these students, as well as to allow other students to get the education to which they are also entitled.

I also need to mention the rise in students classified with “other health impairment.” Our population increased from 0 to 17.1% in the period we are looking at. I would note at the state level, that percentage has gone from 7% to 16.4% during that time. These students can require a range of expensive medical services.

While I appreciate the intent of the current funding formula to account for these students who cost us so much more money, calculating the actual cost is difficult. When you are fiscally responsible, you ask people to wear multiple hats serving multiple students. Calculating exactly who gets what service is tricky. This “trickiness” is compounded with a greater number of students and the greater variance in types of disability.

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