April 23, 2007

With lack of special ed funding, districts are forced to make cuts in other areas

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

With federal and state mandates on special education not being fully funded, and increased costs associated with it, school districts are left to pick up the additional costs.

This is true for Dassel-Cokato, which finds itself making cuts elsewhere because of the lack of special education funding.

As of 2003, state special education funding was capped at $529 million to be allocated to school districts.

Therefore, even though the number of students served and costs associated with them may increase, each district is allowed only a prorated percentage of revenue toward salary and other student costs.

Staff benefits are not included in this funding and districts have a two-year delay in receiving funding for salaries, eligible equipment, and supplies, according to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).

Currently, districts are receiving 79 cents to every dollar due to the cap put on state special ed funding, according to the MDE.

This forces school districts to make up the remainder of the costs and dip into its general education aid funding to supplement for the remaining 21 cents, according to MDE.

Even though federal and state funding is reduced, school districts are required to maintain a certain level of local shares and cannot make significant cuts to the special education programs unless there is a change in student special education population, according to Wendy Seefeldt, business manager for Meeker and Wright Special Education Cooperative (MAWSECO).

In the 2005-06 school year, the DC School District’s special education expense was $2,117,755. The state’s special education aid was $1,037,243, and the federal special education aid was $128,851. The remainder of expenditures came from the district’s general fund, which last year was $951,661, according to information provided by the district office.

The federal government prescribes what needs to be done as far as services for children with special needs, but the state of Minnesota is much more prescriptive, according to Lesley Miller, director of special education for MAWSECO.

“Services must still be provided, and when the state and federal government don’t live up to their funding commitment, school districts and local taxpayers have to make up for it,” Seefeldt said.

Increasing costs for special education have caused the DC School District to make reductions in other areas, according to DC Superintendent Jeff Powers.

“Last year alone, our special education costs exceeded $1 million that we won’t be reimbursed for,” Powers said.

“If we were reimbursed even half of that, we wouldn’t have had to make the cuts we just made,” he said.

Powers explained costs for special education as being “invisible” to the general public.

“They are real and mandated, but not always seen,” he said.

In 1975, federal legislation was passed, in which children would receive their education in their least restrictive environment. Therefore, students who were institutionalized or served outside of their home school district returned back to their home school district, according to Seefeldt.

At that time, a goal was set for the federal government to cover 40 percent of the excess cost of special education funding for each district.

Districts are currently receiving only 18 percent. This could decrease to 17 percent under President George Bush’s budget proposal, Seefeldt said.

Miller defines special education as instruction specially designed to meet unique needs of a student with disabilities. This includes related services to enable students to benefit from special education instruction.

Some examples of related services are, psychological services, assistive technology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, audiology, and mobility training.

Districts are responsible for special education services from birth to 21 years of age. There are currently 222 students in the DC school system receiving special education, which is 10.3 percent of the total enrollment.

Special education costs are two times the cost of general education, according to the US Department of Education’s 2004 special education expenditures project report.

There are proposals by the governor, house and senate that address general and special education aid, but if there is no change, districts will be on their fifth year at the same level of funding, Seefeldt said.

MAWSECO is a joint powers school district formed in 1975, with seven surrounding districts coming together to provide special education services in a cost-effective manner, according to Seefeldt.

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