09 Apr Kansas Legislature Pares State Aid for Special-Needs Students

April 9, 2010

By: JIM SULLINGER
Source: The Kansas City Star

After cutting more than $33 million this year from Johnson County’s three big school districts, Kansas lawmakers snipped an additional $6.5 million last week.

Lawmakers said school districts and legislators from outside Johnson County were unhappy with the amount of catastrophic special education funding the three districts qualified for this year.

Sixteen years ago, lawmakers created a fund known as “catastrophic aid” to help local districts pay for special education students whose schooling was expensive — more than $25,000 per pupil.

Last year, Shawnee Mission began calculating special education costs differently, adding costs for services such as busing and classroom instruction, even though those expenses are covered by other funds.

The result: Hundreds more students qualified for catastrophic aid, and Shawnee Mission received an additional $3 million. Ola the and Blue Valley adopted the same approach.

But other districts complained. More money for Johnson County meant less for everyone else.

Before adjourning for a three-week recess, the House and Senate passed a bill significantly reducing the amount of money the three districts can claim.

Tom Trigg, Blue Valley’s superintendent, said the district had identified 129 special education students to receive almost $2 million in additional aid from the state. Under the changes passed last week, he said only five to eight of the 129 will qualify. Because the districts can’t stop service to the special-needs students, officials will have to pull the money from elsewhere in their budgets.

He estimated the loss to the district at between $1.3 million and $1.5 million. That’s on top of an estimated $4.8 million in lost state aid this year.

“The catastrophic bill is pretty catastrophic for us,” Trigg said.

Shawnee Mission officials said that without the bill they would have received $3.1 million this year. That will decrease to $100,000.

Olathe officials estimated their loss under the bill at $2 million.

The three Johnson County districts opposed the bill, arguing that their special education needs have been chronically underfunded and their claim to the catastrophic aid was legal.

The rest of the state wasn’t buying the argument.

One of the area lawmakers who opposed the bill is Senate Vice President John Vratil, a Leawood Republican.

“I’m not happy with it, and my school distric ts aren’t happy with it,” he said.

Trigg said Rep. Sheryl Spalding, an Overland Park Republican, tried to delay the legislation by one year and was unsuccessful.

The measure — SB 359 — was approved by the House 103-16 and the Senate 29-11. Those margins are enough to override any veto by Gov. Mark Parkinson.

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