Report: Special ed needs are increasing in District 834

The special education needs of students are increasing at Stillwater area schools and the rest of the state. However, the funding from the state and federal government is not keeping up with the increased costs, according to a study of the Stillwater Area Public Schools special education program.

George Holt and Barbara Troolin conducted a study of special education and special education funding in the Stillwater Area School District. The team presented a report to the school board May 25. Holt and Troolin are former employees of the  Minnesota Department of Education, and they – along with fellow MDE retiree Carol Hokenson – completed the study as consultants for the district.

The report found there were 1,276 student residents of the school district with individualized educational plans (IEPs) in fiscal year 2016-2017 — 13.95 percent of total number of enrolled students. The state average of students with special education needs is 14.36 percent.

“Bottom line, you are right below the state average,” Troolin said.

In their report, Holt and Troolin studied the change in student needs for special education from school year 2006-2007 to school year 2016-2017.

“We want to bring four to your attention,” Troolin said.

Only one category of special education needs in the district has decreased in the last 10 years, she said: The number of kids with emotional-behavior disorders has dropped slightly.

In the other threemajor classifications of special education, numbers have gone up, Troolin said, with an increase in the number of students with developmental delays; students with autism and health disability; and students with attention disorders, hyperactivity disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.

“In the last 10 years, the number of students on the autism spectrum have gone up by 140 kids,” Troolin said. “But this is not out of line with state and national trends with ASD.”

“Was the definition of those on the autism spectrum in 2006 the same as what they are using in 2017?” asked board member Tom Lehmann.

“No, it has broadened and it has added the whole spectrum,” Troolin said. “It used to be a narrower definition and now it is broader, but … the growth has slowed even though the numbers look like they are skyrocketing. It’s a very interesting field and very challenging to staff.”

As part of the study, Holt and Troolin also compared staffing and other costs related to special education to six metro districts of similar size.

“You have a ratio of 17.5 students with IEPs and teachers — you are the most efficient of all of the districts,” Holt said. “Part of this we are going to attribute to the organization, how you organize your programs, and the second is your due-process clerks.”

Due-process clerks handle the organization of the paperwork, meeting scheduling and management of the documentation of the student’s education.

“That is something that you took away from the time of the teachers that keeps them away from doing the teaching,” Holt said.

In the study, Holt found the special education transportation to be more efficient than other districts.

“The cost of living seems to be the only factor in your growth from 2011 to 2016 when you compare to the other districts,” Holt said. “You are being very efficient about organizing your transportation.”

Holt and Troolin also used information provided over the last several years by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to compare personnel costs that contribute to special education costs. According to the report, MDE indicated that 93 percent of the special education costs were for personnel services. Those services are composed of the school district negotiated salaries and benefits.

According to the report, the Stillwater Area School District has the highest benefit-salary ratio of the seven school districts compared. On average, for every $100 spent on salaries related to special education, the Stillwater Area School District spends an additional $48.61 for the associated benefits.

The salary cost per full-time paraprofessional in Stillwater is $21,598.68. That’s below the average cost of $25,287.45. But Stillwater’s overall benefit costs — at 48.61 percent of salaries — are among the highest of the seven school districts compared.

A significant issue facing the financial health of a school district is the amount of additional funding a district can receive from the state and federal government to offset the increased costs of special education.

“This is important stuff for us in the finance world,” Holt said.

According to the report, the state special education aids do not fully reimburse the school district for the cost of providing special education and services, including transition programing. The costs that aren’t reimbursed to the school district are referred to as the “cross-subsidy” of special education, because those unreimbursed costs come out of the district’s general fund.

“The cross-subsidy amount has gone up over the years,” Holt said. “With the new funding formula [of state funding] you find yourself in the middle of the pack that has a significant increase.”

The report found that the special education costs for the Stillwater Area School District have increased from about $12.2 million in 2011-12 to $13.8 million in 2015-16, an increase of 11 percent. However, the percentage of the general fund that goes toward the cross-subsidy for special education has increased from 7.46 percent in 2011-12 to 12.67 percent in 2015-16.

“As a person in special education, I am always concerned about general education,” Holt said. “Anytime you take a dollar from the general fund for special education, you are have a dollar less for the kids in school.”

Contact Alicia Lebens at alicia.lebens@ecm-inc.com