By Vernae Hasbargen, MREA Lobbyist
When the Legislative Auditor presented a report on the increasing cost of special education to a joint meeting of the Senate and House K-12 Committees, he found a very attentive audience.
“It’s important that this report gather momentum and not dust,” Senator Wiger concluded. This is the first report by the Legislative Auditor since 1997 and as Commissioner Cassilius put it, “I’m seeing a greater urgency in fixing the problem.”
The Elephant in the Room
As special ed costs rise, school districts divert more money from their general fund or operating levies to pay them. The average cross-subsidy is now $834 per pupil, but it varies widely from $100 to $1,000. This year alone the amount is $147. Metro and regional center districts are hardest hit.
Local property taxpayers are paying a bigger share. In 2011, the state paid 56% of the cost, local property taxpayers 33%, and the federal government the remaining 11%.
Governor Dayton has called for an additional $120 per pupil in 2015 for the cross subsidy and changes the formula to give districts with the greatest need 13% more. The Auditor proposed more permanent fixes.
What should Minnesota do?
- Revisit state requirements which exceed the Feds
Here the direction is clear – – the paper work which bogs down special ed teachers comes from state regulations, as do Parent Advisory Councils, broader eligibility and caseload requirements.
- Deal with Maintenance of Effort
While it was not suggested that districts disregard the federal law requiring them to pay the same this year as last, still legislators are looking for the best practices which reduce costs and want Cassilius’ Department to promote them.
- Cut costs
The Governor is attempting to control costs by requiring districts providing the service to pay 10% of the cost, or as his spokesman said, “putting some skin into the game,” Current law requires the resident district to pay 100%.
Early screening will also save dollars as will third-party reimbursement. Senator John Hoffman, a former Anoka-Hennepin school board member, pointed out that last year his district successfully billed Medicaid $8 million in special ed costs, but it had taken them 8 years to decide to do it!. Cassilius might have a different sense of urgency.