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General Fund Impact - Special Ed Costs Soaring

POSTED January 8, 2013 2:13 p.m.

Special education costs are increasing for school districts, while the state and federal governments’ contributions are decreasing, according to a 25-page report on special education in California released Jan. 3 by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO).

In the Oakdale Joint Unified School District the numbers are slightly different than those in the LAO report. The report stated, on average, that about 10 percent of disabled students in California receive special education services. OJUSD Director of Pupil Services Larry Mendonca said that the statewide percentage of students with disabilities (SWD) is similar, but in Oakdale the number is really closer to 12 percent and in certain years has been 13 percent.

Mendonca added that the costs involved in educating SWD are also similar in OJUSD compared to the state average but said that expenses can vary widely because in certain years there are students with greater needs. He said that the goal for OJUSD is to provide the appropriate amount of service for the students tempered with making appropriate decisions about costs. He referred to it as a “delicate balance.”

“It is incredibly expensive and we do not receive the funds to pay for it all,” Mendonca said, adding that there’s no denying that due to the intense services that some Oakdale students need, the federal and state funds provided are not enough.

“We’re encroaching close to $2.5 million out of the general fund to cover what isn’t covered through base funding and federal and state programs,” he reported. “… Special education is a very, very expensive portion of what a school district incurs to operate.”

Mendonca said he found the LAO document to be well written and clear. There were various aspects to the report; however, it stated that the average cost of educating SWD is more than double that required to educate mainstream students. It said that in 2010-2011 an average of $9,600 was spent per nondisabled student and about $22,300 was spent per disabled student.

The additional $12,700 to provide the special services to SWD was spread between federal, state, and local funds – an average of $2,300 in federal contribution, $5,400 in state funds, and $5,000 in local funding. The report showed that while some SWD require much less than the $12,700 in additional funds, there are others who require significantly more. In 2004-2005, special education costs absorbed by the school districts was about 32 percent of the total, but that amount rose to 39 percent by 2010-2011.

OJUSD is part of a consortium known as Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) that governs the regionalized special education program. It includes all other school districts in the county, except Modesto City Schools, as well as the Stanislaus County Office of Education (SCOE). Mendonca explained that certain school districts are regionalized providers for certain classes. For example, there are not enough students in Oakdale to host an autism class, so those students are bussed to a district that is the regional provider for that class.

The local SELPA is set up as a “fee for service” plan, where the districts pay per student and per service. Students could be in multiple classes/services and each service has a separate fee. Bussing is also part of those expenditures. Fees go up or down depending on the number of students in a class – typically, more students means a lower fee per student. Mendonca said that because of the “fee for service” plan, they get a better idea of the true costs unlike other SELPAs that do cost averaging. He said the cost per SWD could be more like $24,000 to $25,000.

OJUSD has been able to “recapture” some of its expenses and mitigate increases, i.e. save money, by “taking back” some classes that were previously run by SCOE over the last five years, Mendonca said. A kindergarten through third grade severely handicapped class was previously run at Cloverland school by SCOE and now OJUSD operates it at Sierra View school with the district’s own employees and materials at a much lower cost. Mendonca said that the county has people on different contracts, they have travel time, and specialists weren’t always available as soon as they were needed. That’s not the case now that OJUSD has taken over the program. Oakdale is the regional provider for that class and students from other districts are also bussed to Sierra View for the class. Mendonca added that it just made more sense financially and program-wise to take it back and run it themselves. Other classes that OJUSD has taken back are an emotionally disturbed class at Oakdale High School, psychological services, and speech services.

Mendonca reported that there are 13 disabling categories. The LAO report listed them in order of most common to least common: specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, autism, other health impairments, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairment, hard of hearing, multiple disability, visual impairment, deaf, traumatic brain injury, and deaf and blind.

Mendonca said that the special education population as a whole has not dropped. He noted that overall, they have seen a decrease in numbers of students with auditory or visual processing disorders but that those students who were previously identified as having a learning disability are now more commonly identified as being other health impaired or as having a different qualifying disability.

According to the report, autism and chronic health problems still comprise a relatively low percentage of SWD; however, they are the fastest growing categories of SWD, respectively, in the state. Mendonca concurred that in OJUSD those two disabilities have also seen the greatest growth. He believes that’s in part due to a more keen and precise system to identify autism.

“Costs have gone up tremendously because more intensive services are required for issues such as autism,” he added.

For example, in addition to specialized instruction, students with autism require more intensive and expensive services that may include a behavioral specialist and/or an occupational therapist. Some students have intensive nursing needs where they require a full time nurse from the time they get on the bus to school until they are bussed home. Those costs are shouldered by the school district.

Mendonca noted that there are advocacy groups that want any and all services available for students, but he said that student needs have to drive the service and cost is driven by student need. He added that sometimes parents are accepting of the services and sometimes they are not.

He also said that the school district cannot cut corners on service to students to save money because that would expose the district to costly legal proceedings and the district also can’t overspend because the money is pulled from the general fund. Mendonca reported that school districts have to meet the mandate of Individualized Education Programs (IEP) for disabled students. If a need is stated in the IEP, it has to be provided. He noted that it’s not like an elective or supplemental program that can be cut from the budget.

Of special note, the state evaluates OJUSD twice a year to ensure that it’s operating within the parameters of special education, including being within the accepted range of SWD.

The LAO report can be viewed at http://lao.ca.gov/reports/2013/edu/special-ed-primer/special-ed-primer-010313.aspx#3.

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