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Special ed funding continues to be a source of frustration

The Hastings School District has funneled money away from its general fund to cover special education expenses for years due to a lack of funding at the federal and state level.

It's known as the "special education cross subsidy" and has long been a source of frustration for the school district as well as other districts throughout Minnesota. Statewide in 2017, districts spent over $670 million out of their own budgets to cover special education expenses and in Hastings, the district covered $4.4 million.

"We are lacking funds to be able to do what we need to do in special education. We make it happen, but at the expense of what comes out of general funding," said Dave Haveman, Hastings Public Schools director of special services.

However, some relief could come in this year's education funding bill at the state Legislature.

As written, the bill would increase funding towards the cross-subsidy. And estimated projections based on it and other preliminary state measures bode well for Hastings, said Jennifer Seubert, the Hastings Public Schools director of business, in an email.

In the next two fiscal years it estimates out to over $225,000 and over $437,000 in increased funding, she said.

However, a clearer picture is still lacking. Legislators aimed to have joint budget targets, or amounts joint conference committees (one of the last steps before a bill reaches the governor's desk) can spend on budget omnibus bills, decided by May 6, but missed that deadline.

Throughout conference committee, the bill could change as well.

"We're just continuing to watch how things are going through, we'll wait to see what gets approved," Seubert said in a previous interview.

Increased costs

Hastings has seen costs increase this year due to a higher number of students in special education services than past years and in transportation costs, Haveman said.

In the past four years, the district's cross subsidy sat around $4 million, but jumped to $4.4 million. The district has over 700 enrolled in specialized needs, up from past years, he said.

The district also employs about 70 care professionals and over 50 licensed teachers for special education services, Haveman said.

"I don't want to oversimplify it, but it's a big pot of money that we need to provide for special ed services," he said.

Statewide, the costs have increased in recent years and are projected to follow suit in the future. The Minnesota Department of Education projected it to reach $921 million by fiscal year 2021 in a 2018 report.

Funding is further complicated by stagnant federal funding.

When Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandated free public education for students with special needs, in 1975 it stipulated that it would cover 40% of special education costs. That portion has been flat at about 16% since 2010, according to a National Council on Disability report.

The state has increased funding for special education, but that hasn't kept up with expenses, said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, a Twin Cities' metro schools advocacy group.

"We're not on a sustainable path right now," he said. "We really do need to figure out a way to bring it under control."

State legislators are typically "sympathetic" towards the funding issue, he said.

"They don't really question the figures, it really comes down to more of a budgeting (issue)," Croonquist said. "You have a lot of programs competing for a limited pot of dollars."

At an April 27 town hall, Rep. John Huot, DFL-Rosemount, zeroed in on the high costs districts face from the cross subsidy. Despite the partisan differences on funding, he said that he's hopeful that the Legislature can come to an agreement that provides districts some relief.

"I'm optimistic, Republicans or Democrats, we know our kids are important to us, every district is suffering," he said. "I'm optimistic the Senate will deliver us a plan."

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