Top-flight special ed just isn’t affordable

/ 28 February 2012 / jennifer

St. Cloud Times Editorial, February 28, 2012 –

In his first term as superintendent of St. Cloud schools, Bruce Watkins roughly five years ago succinctly described the best and worst aspects of the district’s special education program by comparing it to models of cars.

Essentially, Watkins said, the district had built a Cadillac. While that was good for special-education students, funding realities meant the district could afford only a basic Chevy. Five years later, another study released this month shows little has changed.

But to use Watkins’ initial comparison, the district needs to move from a Cadillac to, say, an Impala.

That won’t be easy. In fact, it probably will anger proponents of special education and even hurt the district’s ability to attract students. But funding realities facing all of birth-to-grade-12 education demand the district finds ways to reduce what it spends on special education.

Please note this is not a call for scorched-earth cuts. Rather, it’s a call for common sense: Fashion a modest program that meets basic expectations.

Why? The answer is simple. Federal and state lawmakers have created a double-edged sword for special education. Not only have they never fully funded the mandates they seem to continually pass, but in recent years they have routinely frozen, delayed or cut any and all education funding streams.

For St. Cloud’s special education program that means this year alone it will come up $8.6 million short on funds. Paying those bills means tapping its general fund.

If such a shortage was uncommon, that might be OK. But it’s not. Plus, there is no end in sight to the legislative causes of the deficits. (The district already cut $2.4 million in these programs since 2005.)

The district must develop and implement a long-term plan that minimizes the cross subsidy. This comparative study, which cost about $70,000, positions the district to go that direction.

As a recent Times news report noted, among the districts studied were Grand Rapids, Duluth, Rochester, North St. Paul-Mendota Heights and Mankato — all regional centers with similar-sized districts.

The new study shows St. Cloud spends $27 million on special education, about $6 million more than other districts. It points to St. Cloud saving funds by reducing the number of special education assistants as well as supervisors. And it suggests pooling resources to create more efficient delivery of some services to certain groups of students.

Those are just a few ideas. In these times of little luxury for public education, we look forward to district leaders examining solutions as they strive to revamp special education programs to better reflect the funding available for them.