Combing through the budget, Part II

At tomorrow night’s meeting of the full Board, we’ll be asked to pass the Superintendent’s proposed budget for 2009-10. As I wrote in Part I of this post, the good news with this budget is that there are not draconian cuts. The bad news is that it is pretty bare bones, with little extra to put towards new priorities or the expansion of existing programs.

I was particularly disappointed that the proposed budget does not contain much in the way of expanded professional development opportunities for special education, since our feedback from families and other community members says strongly that these opportunities are desperately needed — for special education teachers, for special education aides, for administrators and for general education personnel working with children who are identified for special education. We need better training in disability awareness, in strategies to support reading and math achievement, in positive behavior management, and in methods of supporting positive relationships between children with disabilities and their typical peers.

It’s not that the district is cutting money to special education — on the contrary.  Every year the program receives a “contribution” (don’t call it an “encroachment” unless you want to get a lot of advocates angry with you) from the general fund; this is money that is necessary to make up the gap between what we receive in federal and state funds for special education and what it actually costs to run the program.  In each of the last two years, the contribution totaled about $34 million; in 2009-10 the Superintendent is proposing to increase the contribution to $41 million.

In addition, we will receive a total of $13.2 million in Federal stimulus funds under IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, the Federal law guiding the education of children with disabilities).  The guidelines for the use of the stimulus money would allow us to apply half of it to “backfill” contributions from the general fund, but the Superintendent has chosen to apply 100% of the stimulus to special education and not divert any of it back to general education uses (half of that $13.2 million is being called a “contribution” –hence the increase in the contribution figure — and half is an outright grant to special education).

In all, spending on special education will top $101 million in 2009-10 according to the proposed budget (excluding special education transportation, which adds another eye-popping $16 million or so to 2009-10 expenses). By comparision, in 2008-09 we spent about $93 million on special education, exclusive of transportation.

But most of the increased spending is already spoken for before we even dust off the wish list. There are a number of key reasons for this:

  • Health care costs. In a phenomenon we are seeing across the country and not just in education, health benefit costs for employees have risen substantially and across the board. So even just keeping the same special education staffing levels we have had in previous years means a significant increase in staff costs.
  • More realistic budgeting. Many people know that a big problem in special education is its adversarial nature. Lawsuits are common, and families that win their cases often are awarded placement in a private school at district expense.  In other cases, the district and the family agrees that the most appropriate placement for the child is a non-public school. Over the past few years, the number of students attending a non-public school (NPS)  or residential placement at district expense has remained reasonably steady at around 235, costing us about $14 million a year in tuition payments and related costs. The problem is that until the 2009-10 budget, the central office always set the target for NPS tuition costs at $12.5 million — wishful thinking that never really reduced costs but instead simply added to the contribution from the general fund. This year, everyone decided to acknowledge reality and set the budget target for NPS tuition at its actual level – $14 million.
  • Special education class size limits. For many years, San Francisco has been the envy of other districts for its limits on special education class size, negotiated in our contract with United Educators of San Francisco.  For example, a classroom designed for students with emotional disturbances should be no larger than 6-8 students per certificated teacher. A classroom for students with mild/moderate speech and language impairments should be no larger than 10-12 students per teacher. And caseloads for inclusion support specialists, who support students placed 100 percent of the time in general education classrooms, should be no larger than the contract-mandated class size for the student with the most severe disability on the specialist’s caseload. Until recently, however, the district did not really honor the contract when it placed students in classrooms, over-enrolling many special education classrooms and caseloads in order to keep costs down. But thanks to increased oversight by UESF members and their parent partners, district administration has increased its efforts to observe the class size limits in the contract. However, this pledge, combined with an overall increase in the number of students being identified for special education — particularly preschoolers with autism and middle- and high-school students with emotional disturbances–means that we need to open a large number of classrooms by August. In all we are proposing to open 12 or more new classrooms, each requiring at least one teacher and two aides. I support the contract class size limits wholeheartedly and believe this effort will improve learning conditions and outcomes for students, but it is very expensive and will eat up the largest chunk of the increased funding we got from the Federal government this year.

So there you have it. On the one hand, I got some of what I have been asking for lo these many years — adherence to our agreement to keep down special education class sizes and an overall increase in funding — but in the end I am not thrilled because we need so much more.  Still, it could be much worse and the fact is that it WILL get much worse next year. So I am also thankful that students in San Francisco will get a one-year reprieve from the awfulness we are all bracing for next year.

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In other news:  I am experimenting with a different comments policy than I have had heretofore on this blog. For now, individual posts will not have comments enabled but I will periodically, every week or so, post a comments thread where people can respond to posts.  I  will post a “budget comments” thread after this post for readers to respond to Part I or Part II of this post.

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