The special education coffers in the Cedar Rapids Community School District are deep.
Deep in the red, to the tune of about $2.79 million.
It’s not a unique situation for the district’s special education budget, which has operated under a deficit for six of the last eight years. The predicament isn’t unique in Iowa, either, where many districts have had to offer services first and find money later.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school districts must provide services mandated in students’ individualized education plans. The state and federal government both provide funding to schools to meet those students’ needs, but the funding is based on a formula that takes past service requests into account, instead of allocating dollars as new needs arise.
“If a student needs a BrailleNote,” said Sheila Lehman, executive director of special services for the Cedar Rapids district, referring to a piece of technology for visually impaired students, “and it costs $7,000, I have to buy one.”
As a result, many districts implore their school boards to approve requests to the Iowa Department of Education’s School Budget Review Committee for allowable growth and supplemental aid. That’s the move Lehman and Steve Graham, executive director of business services, recommended to the Cedar Rapids School Board during Monday night’s board meeting.
Increases in special education expenditures can be traced to a number of causes, from additional services required in a students’ IEPs to enrollment growth in districts’ special education populations.
School districts throughout the state are collecting data to report to the state on this year’s special education student enrollment. A preliminary count places the Iowa City Community School District at 1,519 according to Carmen Dixon, the district’s interim director of special services. That represents a more than 7 percent increase from last year, when the population totaled 1,418.
With that increase, the district’s special services budget has a $2.69 million deficit and yet still must meet the demands of students’ IEPs.
“We don’t make decisions based on what’s in the deficit,” Dixon said. “We make decisions based on what’s in the individualized plan.”
Dixon said the biggest struggle for her is not knowing how many students will need special services and which supplies, staffing and equipment they’ll need from year to year. Without skimping on services — which isn’t an option because district must comply with IEPs — Dixon’s approach is to “work smarter, not harder.”
“We don’t cut corners, you do what is written on a child’s IEP,” she said. “You don’t have luxury bells and whistles because that isn’t fiscally responsible but you take care of the child’s needs.”
Even if the Budget Review Committee approves those allowable growth and supplemental aid requests, they don’t automatically mean windfalls for special education budgets. Districts have two options when it comes to making up that shortfall: they can levy the dollars through their budget process or dip into the reserves to cover the expenses.
According to Craig Hansel, Chief Financial Officer for the Iowa City schools, that district will most likely rely on “a combination levying back a portion of[the deficit] and then using existing reserves or levying back the total balance,” options the district has used in the past.The final decision will be part of the district’s budgeting process, set to begin in January or February of next year.
Marion Independent School District Superintendent Sarah Pinion, whose district had a $359,124 special education deficit last year, stressed the importance of recouping those dollars. She isn’t sure what her district will do come spring, when they decide how to close that deficit.
“When we build our budget, because we try to keep our levy rate close to what it has been in the past, unless it’s a special situation … if we are levying for the special education deficit, then that kind of limits how we might levy in other areas,” Pinion said.
Graham said the Cedar Rapids district would continue to levy for those dollars as it had in the past, but he was not yet sure what the impact would be to local property owners.
Dixon acknowledged that special education budgets operating in the red was commonplace for Iowa’s school districts — “I don’t know of a district that hasn’t been in a deficit,” she said — she suggested that altering the weighting of the formula which decides how funding is allocated would be a step in the right direction.
“I don’t know if it would cut (the deficit) or diminish it but it would definitely help,” she said.