In the past decade, the cost of educating special needs children has skyrocketed while the numbers of children with disabilities have shown only modest increases.
A analysis of data from the Ohio auditor and the Ohio Department of Education shows that Butler County public school districts spent 158 percent more on special education between 2001 and 2010 while the number of special needs children has risen by 14 percent.
These changes come at a time when all Ohio districts are facing reduced funding from the state, and many districts are having difficulties passing levies.
Local superintendents said special education can be a sensitive issue, due to the children and the money involved, but districts do the best they can.
Federal law requires that all public school districts provide a “free and appropriate public education” to all students, regardless of the nature or severity of a student’s disability and regardless of cost.
William Valerius, director of pupil personnel at Hamilton City Schools, said that apart from inflation, there are many reasons why these costs have skyrocketed in recent years, including the increased cost of technology, a shifting of the districts’ responsibilities and the way money is allocated by the state to provide special services.
“We are required to provide services for these students, but districts never receive the money to cover it from the Department of Education,” he said. “The cost has gone up not because of salaries, but the cost of assistive technology and adaptive equipment for children who are in wheelchairs have skyrocketed.”
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act governs how states and public agencies provide care to children with disabilities throughout the nation. IDEA, along with other state and federal grants and programs, also provides funding for special education services in public school districts.
Special education and its funding can cover a broad demographic, including students who are physically and emotionally disabled, have autism or are gifted.
In the past, some of the services to students with disabilities was managed by the Butler County Board of Developmental Disabilities, but as that agency lost funding through the years, the responsibility for those services shifted to the school districts.
“Since school districts are required to provide those services, we now have to bear the cost,” he said. “For instance, we didn’t used to have to transport those students, but now we do.”
Schools are educating students diagnosed with developmental delays and autism, as well as those who are epileptic and quadriplegic. Area districts also reported a stark rise in diabetic children, consistent with the national trend, and those children may require that their blood sugar be checked multiple times per day.
These varied and intensive issues require more specialized services and care, which in turn cost more money.
Districts are also now responsible for identifying preschool children with disabilities and provide services to them.
“Middletown has increasingly higher numbers of students with more significant needs that require a variety of services to access instruction, some of which include speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and aide services,” said Deborah Turner, student services coordinator at Middletown City School. “We have high numbers of students identified on the autism spectrum as well as students identified as ADHD. We also have a high number of students with multiple disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and visual impairments.”
Valerius said that sometimes a student’s disabilities are so severe that they need specialized care that can’t be given in a public school facility setting.
“We’re still required by law to serve them, so we have to find another facility,” he said. “We try to keep every child in the district if we can, but if there’s additional cost, we’re required to pay it. It may cost $40,000 to $70,000 a year for a child in a hospital environment, but we may only get funding for $15,000 or $20,000 for that.”
Hamilton tries to save money by centralizing certain disability services in one or two buildings to serve the entire district. All visually impaired elementary students, for instance, go to Bridgeport Elementary, and children with multiple disabilities go to either Bridgeport or Linden.
Sharon Honnert, who also is part of a southwest Ohio mentor group and a mother of a handicapped son, said the care and funding of special needs students can be difficult for parents whose kids are involved, and those whose aren’t, especially when those needs include mental challenges.
“Mental health is the least understood social issue,” she said. “It’s not an easy road for families.”
Even cash-strapped districts like Lakota are able to provide a quality education for its special needs students, said Brenda Padget, Lakota Local Schools executive director of special services.
“I believe that we do it well. We’re not extravagant, but we get the jobs done, and we make sure the kids get their needs met. I’m very proud of that. That’s our staff working hard and our administrators working hard to really problem solve a lot of different things,” she said.
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Original article can be found here: http://www.middletownjournal.com/news/middletown-news/special-ed-spending-soars-in-some-districts-1360299.html