The inescapable financial responsibility of schools

Category:  News
Wednesday, February 5th, 2020 at 7:38 PM

If you live in and are a taxpayer of General McLane, you probably think of the district as the five buildings we occupy: two elementary schools, a middle school, a high school and a service center. Many people would be surprised to know that those are not the only buildings where we are paying to educate our students, in addition to charter schools, of course. 

A school district is never relieved of its responsibility to pay for the education of a school-age child whose parents live in the district. Never. 

A good example of this is the process of expelling a student, which we rarely do. Courts have ruled that education is a 14th amendment “property right.” They decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that a single suspension from school can only go up to 10 days. A single day beyond that would be an expulsion. 

Because education is a property right, an expulsion requires due process. This means that a student facing expulsion has a hearing in front of a committee of the school board, which serves as the jury. The district pays for a hearing officer, stenographer and lawyer representing the administration, which brings the charges. The student is also entitled to a lawyer at the family’s expense. 

If the committee recommends expulsion, a vote is taken by the full board at a business meeting. If a student is expelled, the parents have 30 days to find an alternate place to educate the child. Even if they have the means to pay for a private school, a private school will not accept a student which has been expelled. 

The law states that if the parent cannot find an alternative method to educate their child within 30 days, the school district is still responsible. So, guess what? Expelling a student, from strictly a financial perspective, does not relieve us from the financial burden of educating the student, and it adds the additional cost of the expulsion hearing and placement. So, whenever possible, we skip the expulsion hearing (which costs up to $5,000) and go straight to finding a placement. 

If a student gets into trouble with the law, totally independent of the school district, and is sent to a juvenile detention facility, we still get a bill from that facility for the education portion of that student’s rehabilitation. We have paid for a student’s education in detention facilities as far away as Philadelphia. 

Less extreme behaviors that do not result in expulsion or a legal placement may result in alternative education placements. These placements are for students who frequently break the rules and become a chronic disruption in the school. 

There are only two alternative education programs in Erie County right now, and they are usually at capacity. These programs seek to provide the student an education during hours similar to regular school, but they add a behavior modification component and a counseling component. We pay the full cost of this, which can be $70 per day or more. 

These are examples of how we pay for a student’s education when issues of poor conduct lead them away from us. A growing number of “out of district placements” are occurring as a result of the increased mental health needs among our students. These placements vary in intensity and cost. 

There are a number of services, such as outpatient counseling and mobile therapy, that do not involve us. An example of one service for which we do pay the educational portion of is known as partial hospitalization. This is an intensive psychiatric service for children with behaviors that indicate a risk for safety and decreased functioning not requiring supervision on a 24-hour basis. In this service model, students attend school at a different facility where both their educational and mental health needs are addressed. We pay the cost of the educational portion, and insurance or medical access pays the mental health piece. 

Sometimes a student’s mental health needs are significant enough that they require treatment in the hospital. Even when in the hospital, they are receiving education in the form of a tutor, for which we pay. 

I have found that managing and containing costs for the school district has become more difficult over the last 10 years with the increased attendance at charter schools and the increased need of services for students whose issues extend well beyond what a public school can provide. To fully understand the financial picture of a school district, you need to think beyond the 117 square miles it covers. 

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