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Special ed funding slips

Trevor Relue, 14, a ninth-grader at Mars High School, helps run his school's coffee shop as part of the Life Skills class. School districts are increasingly relying on local tax dollars to fund special education programs, according to a report by Pennsylvania's Education Law Center.
Butler, Mars maintain same levels of instruction

Schools in Butler County are increasingly relying on local tax dollars to fund special education programs as state funding has stagnated for several years, a recent report found.

The county isn't alone: Special education funding across Pennsylvania mirrors the situation in Butler County schools. The report's researchers at Pennsylvania's Education Law Center — along with those involved in educating children with disabilities in Butler County — see a growing local dependency on state legislators to blame for the lack of funding.

As Reynelle Brown Staley, the policy attorney who led the report, explained it, “the amount of money coming from the state just isn't increasing a lot.”

“Costs are rising at a rate that is far higher than the level of state funding,” Staley said. “State funding isn't even rising fast enough to meet inflation.”

Staley and other researchers found that special education costs in Pennsylvania increase by about $200 million per year. Between 2008 and 2016, state funding increased by a total of just $72 million. Special education costs grew by $1.5 billion in that time, researchers found.

Budget setting sessions at school boards can become tense affairs, Staley said, and often parents and taxpaying spectators walk away feeling frustrated. She argued that there's a simple reason school districts are always debating which cuts to make in a given year, rather than which programs to expand.

“Some just don't have the local wealth to be able to generate thousands or millions of dollars to meet funding needs,” Staley said. “Instead, they're figuring out ways to cut costs. It may be that they're raising class sizes or cutting programs. They're doing things that are not allowing them to maintain the same quality of programming.”

What is special education?

Individual school districts might lump programs into their overall special education budgets that aren't related to areas referenced in the study. For example, advanced or gifted programs don't have the same state and federal mandates behind them and weren't included in the study.

Among those counted are students who have been found to have some sort of disability that requires extra support from their school, Staley said.

Autism is among the more common disabilities that need special programming. Speech disorder is another.

The Butler School District has 1,218 students — out of a little more than 6,300 students — who require such services.

In Pennsylvania, there are about 270,000 students who need some sort of special education.

Funding affect on school districts

The funding shifts can burden taxpayers, but classrooms don't appear to be feeling the pain.

In the Butler School District, special education costs between 2008 and 2016 increased by about $5 million, a 45-percent increase.

During the 2008-2009 school year, the state covered 37 percent of those costs. In the 2016-2017 year, the state covered just 27 percent. The district's special education costs rose by $5 million, but state funding only rose by about $220,000.

Brian White, Butler's superintendent, said the issue comes from state officials having a disconnect from local-level needs.

“Your local school board is close to you and hears you,” White said. “They hear that spending is too high and they make adjustments. Harrisburg doesn't hear you.”

White said that declining enrollment in the Butler School District in recent years has added to the frustrations when funding runs dry for state-mandated programs. Special education is one of the costlier mandates districts have to cover, he said.

“How much can a community be taxed in property tax before they can't handle it?” White said.

White's school district has a property tax rate of 101 mills. The state's average, based on a tabulation of Department of Education millage data available online, is about 41.59 mills. Butler's education tax rate is almost exactly at the average among districts at least partially within Butler County, which is 101.83 mills.

A mill generates $1 in revenue for each $1,000 of a property's assessed value.

But White said that funding issues aren't affecting Butler's special education services.

“The cost is not a driver in our decision making,” White said. “It's not even legally allowed to be part of the decision.”

At Mars High School, Samantha Flanhofer, the school's life skills teacher, said that she doesn't see budgets affecting the quality of her students' special education.

“The administration has been more than willing to be flexible, allowing me to build — however, I wanted to build this program and make it as successful as it could be,” she said.

That being said, she read the report and said her sense is that its premise is accurate in her district.

“I believe that the state is pulling back and not providing enough funds for special education,” Flanhofer said. “I believe that it's becoming harder to get the needs or resources that our students need.”

State funding in the Mars School District declined by 15 percent during the studied time frame, from previously covering 41 percent of total special education costs to now covering only 26 percent. Its share of state funding declined more than any other Butler County school district.Still, the district is working to retain programming. The Life Skills program, which Flanhofer runs, expanded this school year. But this was due to a private grant — rather than government money — from the Jack Buncher Foundation, which paid much of the bill.Parent Lorraine Bishop said that her son, Jake, has grown remarkably in the Life Skills program.“He loves it,” Bishop said. “Because of this program, Jake has improved by leaps and bounds. He's been able to be a lot more independent.”Jake, who has autism, has learned to launder his own clothes, pay his own bills, cook and even run a small school coffee shop.The 12th grader said that banking skills were the most important thing he has learned in the program.“I know how to write a check and deposit it,” Jake said.Lorraine Bishop has placed Jake in special education programs in California, Colorado and Pennsylvania. She has been happy with her experience in the Keystone State, and said that state budget problems aren't evident in her son's education.Closing Clarence Brown, opening Center AvenuePerhaps the biggest change in Butler County's special education over the studied period was the closing of the Clarence Brown Education Center and the development of the Center Avenue Community School. The shift was largely due to the Butler School District rethinking its special education spending.The former school had operated for more than 30 years, according to its former director, Wayde Killmeyer. Five school districts operated the school cooperatively through the Midwestern Intermediate Unit, pooling their special education resources, and other school districts contributing students for a fee.Staley, the funding study's architect, said that such programs are common in counties where the smaller school districts struggle to serve a handful of particularly needy students.And so Clarence Brown did, until the Butler School District, which provided a large number of the school's students and, therefore, much of its funding, went through its consolidation process. The district's students were pulled, and Butler began running a similar program.Today, Center Avenue accepts several students from smaller districts in the county. The school, operated by the Butler district, has more than 70 students.“It's what made sense for Butler,” Killmeyer said. “There's no animosity.”Still, he said, it was sad news for many students. He said he regularly heard from students who said they never foresaw graduating from high school until they arrived at Clarence Brown.“Because of the lack of state funding, too many decisions are driven by finances, instead of the best needs of students,” Killmeyer said.At Center Avenue today, state requirements continue to muddle the budget setting, said Aaron Royhab, director of special education at the Butler School District.“It seems like mandates from the Department of Education are tighter every year, while funding becomes more of a challenge,” Royhab said.However, he said that funding challenges are a problem for the administration — but not for teachers or their students.“Some of our students have very complex needs,” Royhab said. “Lack of funding is not a justifiable reason to not provide those supports.”White said that it's not uncommon for individual students with particular sets of needs to cost more than $100,000 per year to serve.To give a sense of the staffing required, Royhab provided a breakdown of the district's special needs professionals. The Butler School District employs 74 special education teachers, five psychologists, nine speech therapists, one teacher for the hearing impaired and 120 relevant paraprofessionals.Will the state increase funding?White doesn't believe the state is likely to find the revenue to bolster special education funding anytime soon.“I don't think it's realistic for the state to raise revenues,” White said. “The best hope I have is that they stop passing mandates without funding. No new mandates would be helpful.”Staley, on the other hand, hopes for increased state funding in the near future.She said that Pennsylvania has a special education funding commission that generally convenes every five years — and, as she and other advocates have pointed out, is due to meet this year. If this occurs, the resulting assessment might encourage state legislators to increase funding.“Most superintendents you speak to will say they've done everything they can locally to find these funds,” Staley said. “The only thing left at their disposal is for the state to increase its funding percentage.”Whatever the future holds, the good news is that programs today are still helping students like Jake thrive.“It's amazing to have this apartment,” Jake said, sorting laundry into his classroom's washing machine. “Very amazing.”

Jake Bishop checks the expiration date on a carton of eggs in Mars High School's Life Skills apartment classroom. Students in the program are taught various skills successful adults need to live well independently.Tanner Cole/CRANBERRY EAGLE

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