POLK COUNTY — Last school year, Dallas School District had about 16.4 percent of its student population served by special education.
Because students in special education have higher needs, the state gives districts twice the money to educate those students — about $13,000 — up to 11 percent of the population. Dallas’ special education student numbers are on the raise.
“I have been in the district for six years and we have increased each year that I have been here,” said Autymn Galbraith, Dallas’ special education director.
She said in 2013-14 the number of students on individualized education programs was 433. Now it’s 520.
For Central School District, the percentage of special education students is right at the cap of 11 percent. Central’s special education population has remained steady the last five years, ranging between 11 percent and 11.8 percent, said Juila Heilman, Central’s special education director.
The Oregon Legislature sets the cap, according to Marc Siegel, communications director for the Oregon Department of Education.
“The rationale behind the cap is it prevents districts from over-identifying students with disabilities,” he said.
Siegel said there’s an additional source of funding for special education that could waive the 11 percent cap and send more money to districts that meet certain criteria. Districts used to be required to apply for the funding, but ODE began automatically evaluating them for qualification.
“These funds are distributed based on a comparative formula of spending and severity of special education,” Siegel said. “This is the same formula used initially when districts were required to apply. Now, we take into account that districts are likely to apply for these additional resources anyway, and include all districts for the statewide comparison.”
Statewide in 2017, districts averaged about 13.3 percent of their student populations on special education. During the 2017 session, senators Arnie Roblan and Tim Knopp co-sponsored a bill that would have raised the threshold for special education funding from 11 percent to 13 percent.
“My issue has been that hardly any school district out there doesn’t meet the 11 percent threshold,” Roblan said during a public hearing before the Senate Education Committee on the bill in February 2017. “Most of them, the average now is 13.3 percent.”
Representatives of the Oregon School Employees Association, Oregon Education Association, Confederation of Oregon School Administrators and Oregon School Board Association spoke against the bill at that hearing.
Their concerns were not the intention behind the proposed legislation — providing more for special education students — but that the bill didn’t add money to the state school fund to accomplish that goal. Instead it would have pulled resources from other places.
“It redirects scarce money in the state school fund,” said Soren Metzger, of the Oregon School Employees Association
Laurie Wimmer, with the Oregon Education Association, said at the time the bill was proposed, it would cost $57 million annually to pay for the extra 2 percent statewide.
Roblan said he understood the concerns about state school fund resources and would continue to search for funding options.
“There comes a point in these certain sub-populations that if we are really going to serve them well, I think we need to be honest about what the numbers are,” Roblan said.
The bill didn’t make it out of the committee, and representatives from Roblan’s office said it’s too early to know if Roblan or Knopp would sponsor a similar bill in the 2019 session. The percentage of special education students statewide has grown slightly to 13.5 percent.
The special education cap isn’t the only place schools are hit in the pocketbook when it comes to paying for the education of students with high needs — such as those who need to attend specialized schools or require one-on-one nurses and educational assistants.
Debbie MacLean, Dallas School District business manager said, the state school fund provides about $13,000 for those students, doubling what it spends on non-special education students. The state offers the High-Cost Disability grant for students whose education costs more than $30,000 per year.
Districts pay the cost between $13,000 paid for special education students and $30,000. They can submit all costs more than $30,000 for the grant, but given that all school districts can apply for the money — which is capped at $35 million — only a percentage is paid. The amount budgeted for the grant is set by lawmakers, and SB 574 would have increased that amount from to $36 million.
In 2016-17, the last year that has been fully reconciled, Dallas submitted costs for 70 students to the high-cost disability grant. Those students cost the district $2,953,463 to educate. Because costs more than $30,000 can be submitted, the district applied for that portion, $853,463. That year, the grant paid 47 percent of what was submitted, sending Dallas $403,372.
“For these 70 students the district received $13,359 each from state school fund for a total of $935,132,” MacLean said. “When this amount is added to the HCD grant reimbursement of $403,372 for a total of $1,338,503, the funding for these students falls short by $1,614,960.”
In that same year, Central submitted costs for 34 students for a total of $2,342,915, with expenses more than $30,000 of $1,332,915. The district received $625,249.
Cec Koontz, Central’s business manager, said the percentage paid each year fluctuates based on what other school districts submit, adding even more budgetary complication.
“It’s not in our control because the single fixed pie is getting sliced up among all districts,” Koontz said. “Even if our costs go up, we can get less than estimated if everyone else’s goes up too.”