Districts grapple with special education funding shortfall

  • Dorene Decibus' fifth-grade class at South Meadow School, one of many local schools where special education students are integrated into the classroom. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Dorene Decibus' fifth-grade class at South Meadow School, one of many local schools where special education students are integrated into the classroom. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Dorene Decibus' fifth-grade class at South Meadow School, one of many local schools where special education students are integrated into the classroom. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/9/2019 2:35:33 PM

When it comes to funding education in the Granite State, special education needs are another cost downshifted to local communities.

The federal government has said since 1975 - when a federal law was passed making it a requirement that public schools provide an education to children with disabilities - that it would make a commitment to fund 40 percent of the “excess” special education needs of students, but local school districts and state officials say less than half that amount is currently provided.

Coupled with hard to predict budgets and growing student needs, many area school districts say that special education budgets are increasingly difficult to prepare for.

“The federal government has never fully funded their obligation,” ConVal School District Superintendent Kimberly Saunders said. “We plan our budget based on what we know and can predict ... some of those costs are predictable, but other costs we can’t predict. It makes it hard to anticipate our complete needs.”

Santina Thibedeau, state director of special education, said school districts can tap into other forms of state and federal aid - including additional money in the state’s adequacy aid calculation and reimbursements for “exceptionally high” student costs and Medicaid - but the amount of money given out is still less than districts need to educate their special education population.

“I think the frustration is more at the district level,” Thibedeau said. fall. “They have their federal and state aid, but any difference is made up with local funds.”

Jaffrey-Rindge School District Director of Student Services Jennifer Horne said assembling the district’s special education budget is always a challenge, as you can only plan for what you know.

“You do a snapshot of where we are right now, and we look at trends, but you have no idea who will move and out of the district,” Horne said. “Kids will move in and out of district. The hope is that things are even by the end of the school year.”

Horne said the district does take advantage of all state and federal funding, but that does not factor into determining the budget because the focus is on providing the best education for the students.

Horne said she doesn’t put to much time thinking about the government funding parts of special education funding, but she does focus on making sure she has enough money in her budget to adequately fund special education needs in the district so her budget doesn’t affect other parts of the district-wide budget.

“If the special education budget is empty, additional money has to come out of the general fund because our stuff is mandated,” Horne said. “I try hard to keep within budget... to be fiscally responsible and also be student-centered.”

Wilton-Lyndeborough School District Superintendent Bryan Lane said the percentage of students with identified special needs in his district is rising, especially in the area of autism.

“It varies, and it does run the spectrum,” Lane said. “Students are eligible for services at the age of three.”

Overall, statewide data shows a 3 percent decline in students with disabilities from the year 2000 to 2017, though the number of students identified with autism has risen 643.8 percent and students with developmental delays have risen 268.2 percent over that time period.

“As people are becoming more and more aware about what a disability may be, students are now getting services much earlier,” Thibedeau said.

When working with a student with special education needs, Lane said the goal is always to teach them in the least restrictive environment. While oftentimes the goal is to keep a child in the district, sometimes the needs require a student to be sent out of the district.

“Anytime you can have a child stay in the district, it creates a level of comfort for every student,” Lane said.

Saunders said out of district costs are oftentimes the hardest costs to anticipate. Saunders said it is in these areas specifically that she would like to see the state and federal government provide more funding for.

“We look at what we know we can anticipate,” Saunders said. “We also annually put money into a special education trust fund. That has been how the district has managed unanticipated education costs.”

Nicholas Handy can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or nhandy@ledgertranscript.com.


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