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San Mateo County Schools Urged to Collaborate to Reduce Sped Costs (CA)

July 8, 2010

San Mateo County school districts should strengthen collaboration with each other to lower their special-education costs and press Congress to increase funding, a civil grand jury said in a report released Wednesday.

"Federal funding for the special-education program, which is inadequate now, may decrease in the future," the grand jury said. Local districts face continuing need "to make up the deficits from their general funds that are allocated for all children’s education."

Historically, the federal government has underfunded special education despite a promise to pay 40 percent of it under the nation’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That 1975 law entitles special-needs students to a "free and appropriate public education."

Districts nationwide have long complained of being funded about 20 percent at most to provide specialized, expensive services to those children. The county’s districts must spend tens of millions of dollars every year out of their own coffers.

In the 2009-10 school year, according to the grand jury, the local districts used 9 percen t — or nearly $80 million — of their general funds on special education.

The general fund typically covers teachers’ salaries, textbook purchases and other day-to-day operations.

The county has about 10,300 special-education children — or 12 percent of the total student population in public schools, the grand jury said.

It recommended that the boards overseeing the districts "join or start a consortium" to improve policies and practices "that could result in the reduction in general-fund revenue support for special-education programs without reducing the quality of services."

The grand jury cited the North County Consortium as a good example of how districts can "coordinate their efforts to eliminate the duplication of services and provide the most efficient methods of special-education delivery."

This consortium was formed in 2006 and is made up of the Jefferson, Pacifica, Brisbane, Bayshore and San Bruno Park elementary districts as well as South San Francisco Unified. They share programs and classes for students with disabilities.

For the four districts that have been with the group since its founding — Jefferson, Pacifica, Brisbane and Bayshore — their general-fund contribution to special education is 7.7 percent on average, according to the grand jury. In comparison, it was 11.8 percent for those elementary districts not in the consortium.

The grand jury also called for districts and the county office of education to "vigorously lobby local members of Congress to sponsor legislation to" bring federal funding up to the 40 percent level.

Lo cal school agency officials say they are already doing such work.

County office spokesman Peter Burchyns said his agency is involved with the Coalition for Adequate Funding for Special Education, which has urged Congress to fully fund the law for children with disabilities.

"The districts and the county office of education have long considered full funding for special education as a high priority and will continue to work to achieve that goal," Burchyns said. "In this difficult financial environment, full funding for special education is more critical than ever."

District leaders countywide also said they have already been exploring ways to work together to cut down on special-education costs without compromising quality.

Belmont-Redwood Shores school board President Cathy Wright said her agency has reached out to another district "to get some in-house specialized services rather than going to a private facility, which costs more."

But finding people with specialized training is often difficult, Wright said.

San Mateo Union High School District is trying to improve its partnership with feeder schools to bolster special-education services, said Dave Pine, that district’s board president.

Pine suggested that San Mateo Union can work with middle schools "to develop social skills training for kids with autism," which is on the rise.