Welcome back . . . to the budget

After a restful Thanksgiving break (hopefully you had a restful break as well!), tonight I attended part of the Budget committee meeting to hear an overview of the Special Education budget. The basic facts – which I pretty much knew going in – are these:

  • Annual expenditures ($100 million this year, excluding transportation and legal fees) have gone up several million dollars each of the past few years, even though special education enrollment has remained basically flat. Some of this increase might be attributable to built-in increases in the teacher/paraprofessional salary scale, and/or the rapid increase in more severe disabilities — e.g., autism and emotional disturbance.
  • The Federal stimulus funding we received for special education ($6.5 million in each of the past two fiscal years) has been used to fund existing programs rather than one-time uses — which means, once this funding dries up at the end of this year, that we have a $6.5 million hole in the special education budget for next year.
  • It’s not going to be possible to plug that $6.5 million hole simply with cuts, so, look for the $35 million contribution from the general fund towards special education spending to grow larger.

Cecelia Dodge, our new Assistant Superintendent in charge of special education (she started with the school district in early August) said she believes that the amount of money we are currently spending on special education is enough for a well-conceived program; she added that she is looking to cut back on non-public school tuitions (around $14 million last year) and transportation (an astounding $17 million annually).  This would free up money for desperately-needed professional development.

There was a fair amount of discussion about how special education is funded, both by the Federal and state governments and by our central office. To review:

  • Under IDEA, the Federal government is supposed to pay an additional cost per student in special education, defined as 40 percent of the average per student expenditure nationally. However, the Feds have never paid their fair share as defined by the law — for example, in fiscal 2008 the Federal obligation under IDEA was $19 billion; only $10 billion was actually allocated to the states.  In our district, the Federal allocation is usuallly about 10 percent of our total budget. However, with the stimulus funding we had in the past two years, that share rose to something closer to 18 percent.
  • State funding is not derived from the actual enrollment of students with disabilities, nor the severity of those disabilities. Instead, it is an additional amount of money allocated per ADA (average daily attendance).  
  • Locally, most special education expenditures – teachers, paraprofessionals, speech therapists, transportation – are budgeted centrally. However, schools are given a very small per student amount in the weighted student formula to spend on materials and professional development for their special education programs. This amount – this year averaging about $40 per student enrolled in special education – is largely symbolic, meant to get school communities thinking about supporting the needs of their students in special education but not really enough to enact significant school-based change.

Finally, about that contribution: it’s my view that some contribution is completely appropriate, since it acknowledges the basic fact that all of our kids are all of our kids – some cost more to educate and others cost less. To strictly account for the cost of educating students with extra needs (where do you draw THAT line?) and demand every penny of that in additional funding from the state and Federal government would mean we viewed students who aren’t strictly average as being burdens. Are they really? If one of your children needs braces or requires an expensive operation, would you consider that child a burden on your family?

The real question is, how large should the contribution be? Is $35 million too much? One of the questions we asked the staff tonight was for some kind of accounting of how much different school districts – particularly ones similar to San Francisco in enrollment and other characteristics – contribute out of their general funds towards special education services.

Finally, we asked for information to be broken down differently so as to be more informative to Board members and the public. In the accounting we were given tonight, the cost of legal settlements were included but not the cost of hiring outside attorneys to negotiate them; non-public school tuition and fees charged by agencies serving our students were included but not broken out. Transportation was also not included. Board members asked for an accounting that would help us better understand what we are spending money on – staff, professional development, transportation, private school tuitions and agency fees, etc.   The committee asked for a return to this topic in two months, which would likely mean the January or possibly February meeting of the Budget committee.

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5 responses to “Welcome back . . . to the budget

  1. There’s an interesting discussion of how districts spent their ARRA funds in Edweek this past week. The post is based on this report:
    http://bellwethereducation.org/true-impact-of-education-stimulus-funds-still-uncertain/

  2. The ARRA funds marked for special education were basically robbed by SFUSD. I question the legality of how those funds were used.

    On the SFUSD Flier, asking for parental input on how to use the stimulus funds (we all wasted our time suggesting anything, because they had already decided what to do with the money) it stated:

    “SFUSD is committed to spending the IDEA stimulus funds on durable investments that have long-lasting benefits and do not require on-going spending.”

    What a crock.

    It’s my understanding that SFUSD used all the SPED stimulus funds to open up more self-contained segregated classrooms. How do classrooms NOT require on-going spending?

    Those funds were supposed to be used to make things better, to give our teachers the professional development and tools they need to improve things. Those funds were supposed to be used for all the things there is never any money for, but are desperately needed.

    I don’t see how SFUSD can justify the way it spent the ARRA Sped funds. There may be a legal loophole, but what was done was against the spirit and purpose of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

  3. For the record, I wasn’t referring to skip orders, but to the reality that, no matter the cause, the outcome is unavoidable. This is what worries me the most about budget crises/layoffs/etc.: there is always some outside actor that can be blamed. The outcome doesn’t change, but we feel better about our responsibility.

    I think this has ugly impacts generally. I know I’ve heard people blame the bad state of special education on unfunded federal mandates. Sure, but that doesn’t mean we are not also implicated when we don’t choose to backfill the lack (even if it is not possible).

    I’m fairly sure I skipped a close tag – thanks for editing that.

  4. You know, it’s interesting you bring this up. Over on the TOP-Ed site, there is an interesting discussion going on about LAUSD and other districts shifting to a Weighted Student Formula (which as you know SFUSD has been using for a decade or so; Oakland has implemente a slightly different version). The biggest issue I see with the WSF here in SFUSD is that schools such as your own, with a concentration of junior teachers, are effectively subsidizing schools that have concentrations of more senior teachers. THAT is an equity issue — not one that is easily gotten round, and different from the seniority in layoffs issue you highlight. Though I agree with you about the impact layoffs have on schools with high-need populations, you and I will continue to have to disagree about the district’s authority to pick and choose teachers to lay off, taking other factors into account before seniority. My understanding from the general counsel, HR and the labor relations office remains that we can only take into account specific credential areas (e.g., foreign language, math, science, special ed, BCLAD) in skips — not a school’s characteristics.
    Anyway – we agree on the main point – that the “tipping point” in student needs is not matched by a corresponding “tipping point” in the extra funding that would be required to meet those needs. I’m interested in learning more about NYC’s high-poverty schools that are rising sharply in achievement (see this Op-Ed by Pedro Noguera in the NY Daily News from today: http://bit.ly/igEQKG ) – I hope there are some lessons for all of us there. On the other hand, NYC schools receive twice the funding per student that we do, so . . . nevermind.

  5. To strictly account for the cost of educating students with extra needs (where do you draw THAT line?) and demand every penny of that in additional funding from the state and Federal government would mean we viewed students who aren’t strictly average as being burdens.

    I would argue that we do this already on a broader scale. Schools with a lot of high-needs students got inequitably hit by layoffs and will again; districts say that there is nothing that can be done about this because union contracts/the state/budget crises mean that it is ultimately okay that we give less to our neediest students. It seems pretty clear from the research that a school heavily weighted to high-needs students will experience some kind of exponential growth in problems (a tipping point issue, I guess), but we don’t fund in a way that takes this issue into account (on a local funding level).

    All of which infects thinking about Special Education. I think that in addition to noting the overwhelming overidentification of children of color as needing special education services, we need to talk about how difference – of ability, of color, of language, of background, of strengths and needs – impacts why we struggle to serve all children well.