Pasadena Unified Contends with Ballooning Special Education Costs

About 25% of the District’s budget funds programs for just 16% of its students

Published : Thursday, July 26, 2018 | 5:30 AM

While the Pasadena Unified School District continues working to make cuts to reign in multi-million-dollar budget shortfalls projected over the next few years, it’s increasingly struggling to fund special education, as both the costs, and the share of the costs that the District is responsible to pay, rise year-over-year.

The PUSD Board of Education will consider during Thursday’s meeting whether to approve the Special Education Local Plan Area’s proposed plan as it stands, as well as the special education budget for the 2018-2019 school year. District staff recommends they do.

Much of it is out of their control, as funding levels are mandated by state and federal law, Board of Education Member Scott Phelps said. Nonetheless, ballooning special education costs are drawing more than ever from the District’s unrestricted funds.

Anticipated spending for special ed in the 2017-2018 year is expected to top $57.5 million, he wrote in an op-ed last month. That amounts to nearly 25 percent of the District’s entire $234-million budget, though special ed students make up about 16 percent of the student body.

And while some of those funds are provided by state and federal sources, the District is left to foot the bill for the balance, Phelps said. Costs continue to rise, while resources provided by the state and federal governments remain largely stagnant, and even have declined at points.

“It’s just archaic and it needs to be redone,” he said. “Special ed. funding has to be redone. It’s time, because all these districts are dealing, with pension crises, but at the same time, this archaic special ed funding system?”

The 2017-2018 school year was the first time the funds contributed from the Pasadena Unified’s unrestricted funds eclipsed those provided by the state and federal governments, according to Phelps. The District spent more than $30 million, while taking in about $27.7 million.

And the shortfall is expected to be even greater for the 2018-2019 school year, with about $32.5 million of District funds going to special education.

The issue affects schools throughout the state, but Pasadena is hit especially hard because Pasadena Unified, unlike most California school districts, operates as its own Special Education Local Plan Area, or “SELPA.” The guidelines for establishing and running SELPAs are set out in Assembly Bill 602.

Phelps said because of that, it receives funding at a lower level than many other districts.

The rate at which SELPA’s throughout the state are funded is between $470 to $917 per student, Phelps said. For the PUSD, “It’s $507 per pupil… We receive much lower funding than other districts.”

And the funding is based on the entire student population, not just the proportion of those in special education programs, he said.

Pasadena is home to many children’s institutions that take care of kids with special needs, and enroll them into the PUSD, Phelps said. But at the same time, “Our general enrollment has been going down for decades.”

Phelps said he would like to see the type of reform measures applied to general school funding also applied to special education.

“The government totally redid the state funding of schools four to five years ago, and we’ve added this new system called ‘local control funding,” he said.

Governor Brown’s recent budget included “small acknowledgements” of the state’s special education funding crisis, Phelps said. But he added that it didn’t address the larger issue.

It includes money to recruit and retain special education teachers, he said. “But it didn’t change any funding rate, didn’t increase special ed. funding. The government didn’t touch any of that.”

The federal government has also left much to be desired when it comes to helping with special education.

“The federal government has never funded special education at a level that is even half of its promise to fund up to 40-percent of special education costs, forcing states and local educational agencies to cover remaining costs,” Phelps wrote in the op-ed. “While the population of students requiring special education and services continues to grow, federal funding has not grown and has even decreased at times.”

Meanwhile, “The total cost per pupil for special education has risen in the last three years, from $15,000 to over $21,000,” Phelps added. “Agencies providing services to SELPAs raise their rates each year, according to the inflation rate. Exacerbating this is a regulation called ‘maintenance of effort,’ under which SELPAs cannot reduce expenditures compared to the previous year.”

The public portion of tonight’s Board of Education meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in the Elbie J. Hickambottom Board Room of the District Headquarters at 351 South Hudson Avenue in Pasadena.

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