OPINION: Don’t be fooled, state still has work to do on school funding

Special education should get more attention

By Dan Casler

Superintendent, McCleary School District

he title of this piece may catch your attention to the McCleary Supreme Court ruling from 2012 and ongoing, but hold tight. Related for sure, but this article speaks about my own district of McCleary located in the town of McCleary. It’s a small, non-high school district servicing 350 preschool-grade 8 students. Students from McCleary mainly track to Elma and Capital high schools.

I am writing as the superintendent of this fascinating, small district, one that still bolsters a sense of tight community, student involvement in its full school offerings, and the ability to meet each child’s needs, as we know each one well. I was drawn to McCleary for these reasons. Not to mention the warm smell of homemade style, apple cinnamon muffins for breakfast during my first visit six years ago.

I am writing to respond to the inaccurate message that our state Legislature has acted to fully fund education. For various reasons, but for now may I draw your attention to special education. Yes, special education funding. Via HB 2242, on June 30, 2017, our Legislature acted to make sweeping changes to funding rules, the state property tax, local levy rules, the elimination of a salary schedule for teachers, and some increased funding in targeted areas. Here I will not draw your attention to these areas that have changed the landscape of running a district, namely uncertainty and shortfalls in local collections that are not projected to be back-filled adequately by the state as suggested by your elected officials. Instead, may I direct your attention to one area of funding that can desperately tie the budget hands of districts to both service their full district and stay afloat.

Our Legislature made a commitment to increase the categorical funding of special education that did realize improvements to the overall allocation. This was an excellent start, but only the first step to special education funding reform. We continue to rely on local levy funding to make up a significant shortfall, while we also await state funding, which is not projected to make up differences for most districts. Over the last two years in the McCleary School District we have shown shortages in special education funding in 2015-16 of 37.7 percent, and 2016-17 55.8 percent. This year continues a major shortfall to be fully determined. Costs for special education staffing are expensive, and the market for qualified practitioners across our state is slim.

Our “over-spending” reality in special education, or more clearly shortfall, is that federal and state laws require districts to meet the individual needs of students on “Individual Education Plans (IEPs)”. These services range from limited speech services once per week, to one on one services from an educational assistant, to out of district placements for learning or behavioral needs that districts are unable to service. The McCleary School District currently funds this full continuum. Over recent years McCleary has made significant improvements in our services to be both compliant and service student IEPs as we know is right. We are proud of this fact, and yet we are seeing deficits we will be unable to sustain without other significant reductions to instructional staff and programs. Here’s the budgetary dilemma districts face — do they apologize to their community that they do not have adequate funds to service student IEP needs, or do they apologize for those substantial costs necessary to meet the needs of all students? I personally sleep much better knowing our students have what they need when they enter our doors.

It can be noted that OSPI has provided a reimbursement funding mechanism, titled “Safety Net,” to help alleviate “high need student costs” exceeding $30,316 (for 2017-18). That is, for costs that exceed this threshold. In McCleary we currently employ various educational assistants that work one on one with PreK-grade 6 students who have significant learning and behavioral needs. Each of these costs fall below this threshold and therefore do not meet criteria for Safety Net. One might ask: Are these not high need costs for districts? Until the Legislature addresses the full special education funding model — both the categorical funding for which they made improvements, and now funding for high need IEPs — small districts in particular will continue to fall behind and be at risk of not balancing a healthy budget.

Many district officials and families would say that we have a civil rights issue here. Organizations in our state, including OSPI, the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA), and the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA) to name a few, have recognized that special education funding has not been fully addressed. Districts will continue to encourage families and the greater educational community to continue to ask their legislators about special education funding and how they plan to address this significant issue.

Dan Casler is the superintendent of the McCleary School District.