School Districts Avoid Cuts in Special Education in Budget Crisis (NJ)
July 6, 2010
In as dismal a budget year as anyone can remember, with rising costs and steep cuts in state aid, school districts across New Jersey have looked for savings wherever they can find them.
School boards have laid off teachers, scrapped sports, pruned full-day kindergarten to a half day and eliminated free busing for some students.
But one area that cannot be cut, one line item not up for discussion, is special education, a required offering that grows more expensive by the year, far outpacing state and federal aid. At a time of austerity, school officials say, the growing demands of special education are forcing them to slice into general education programs that serve many more students.
"This is an area that is completely out of control and in desperate need of reform," said Larrie Reynolds, superintendent in the Mount Olive School District, where special education spending rose 17 percent this year. "Everything else has a finite limit. Special education — in this state, at least — is similar to the universe. It has no end. It is the untold story of what every school district is dealing with."
Eighteen percent of New Jersey’s schoolchildren were in special education programs during the year that just ended, up from 16 percent in 2002 and 13 percent in 1985. They include students with speech difficulties, behavioral problems and physical or mental impairments from mild to severe.
To deal with the range of issues, districts generally provide behaviorists, psychologists and so-called shadows, aides who remain with students for some or all of the day.
Educating those students is inherently more expensive. On average, districts spend about twice the amount to educate a special-needs child as they do for a student in the general population, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.
And because costs have risen at a faster rate than state aid, local districts are left bearing a greater percentage of the overall financial burden.
A study conducted by the school boards association in 2007 found local districts picked up 57 percent, or $1.9 billion, of the cost of educating 230,000 special-needs children in 2005, the most recent data available at the time of the study. In 2000, by contrast, school districts picked up 53 percent of the cost.
Because communities have caps on property tax hikes, administrators have little recourse but to make cuts in general programs, be it a foreign language class or middle school sports, said John Donahue, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials.
"What are our choices?" Donahue asked.
In some cases, the higher costs associated with special-needs students are unexpected, throwing budgets into disarray.
"One individual could move into your community and could drastically alter the budget," said Peter Starrs, business administrator for the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District.
That’s what happened in Montgomery Township, said Tom Venanzi, the school district’s business administrator. In crafting a budget, the district underestimated the number of students who will require private schools, which offer more specialized programs. To accommodate those students, Montgomery officials must now find an additional $200,000, Venanzi said.
Montgomery budgeted about $22 million on general education programs for its 5,000 students. Another $5 million has been earmarked for 500 special-needs kids who are taught within the district. Private school tuition for just 40 other students will cost the district $3 million more, 20 percent higher than a year before.
Administrators agree the steady rise in private school tuition has been one of the most significant drivers of cost in special education.
At Raritan Valley Academy, a Piscataway school for children with behavioral problems, tuition last year was $35,640, up more than 7 percent since 2008, according to the Middlesex Regional Educational Services Commission.
Bedminster’s Somerset Hills Learning Institute for autistic children costs more than $116,000 per student this year, up from $46,000 when it opened in 2000, according to the Department of Education.
"Basically, the tuition for these kids is driving up the costs," said Emidio D’Andrea, the Sayreville School District’s business administrator.
In most states, relatively few special education students attend private schools, while New Jersey sends about 10 percent of its special-needs children to such facilities, or three times the national average, said Diana Autin, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, which lobbies on behalf of parents with disabled children.
Under a 2008 state law, districts are responsible for the first $55,000 spent in sending a child to private school. After that, the state pays 75 percent of the cost. Even so, a student with severe disabilities and who requires transportation could run a district well over $100,000.
To cope, school officials in some communities are creating programs to serve special-needs children in-district.
Sayreville received a $308,000 state grant in 2008 to bring autistic students back to the district. That program has saved about $200,000 per year, said D’Andrea, the business administrator. Mount Olive and Montgomery also have made efforts to educate more special-needs kids on-site.
Education advocates have lobbied Trenton to pick up a greater share of the cost, but the Christie administration, in cutting nearly $1 billion from education aid this year, made clear state government has budget troubles of its own.
"Something has got to give," said Donahue, the executive director of the school business officials association. "There is a fundamental principle that expenses must equal revenues. We must, and I believe we will, begin to address these issues."