Special Education as a Growing Expense

Nebraska schools are not alone when it comes to reduced funding for federally mandated special education services.

Nebraska schools are not alone when it comes to reduced funding for federally mandated special education services.

by Grant Schulte -

Nebraska schools are keeping a close eye on a state budget proposal to increase funding for special education, a growing expense that has forced them to divert money away from other priorities.

School districts welcome the increase after years of flat-lined funding, but they say the proposal still fails to cover the increased costs of federally mandated services for disabled students, as well as those with mental and behavioral health problems.

“It’s a start,” said Brad Schoeppey, the superintendent of Chase County Schools in southwest Nebraska. “Is it where it needs to be? No. But obviously, it’s better than nothing at all.”

Lawmakers will consider the funding boost for Nebraska’s 249 school districts as they craft a new two-year state spending plan. Gov. Dave Heineman has proposed a $29.6 million increase in special education funding, a 5 percent bump for each year. Nebraska reimburses about 50 cents for every dollar that local districts spend on special education, a rate that has declined since the 1970s.

Chase County Schools spend about $719,000 per year on special education, out of a $9 million budget. The money helps pay for contract services, including a teacher for a visually impaired student and speech therapists. The cost of those services has risen for the district of 588 students.

“We have to use quite a lot of general fund money,” Schoeppey said. “It takes funds away from other kids to support the special-ed funding, because we don’t get enough to cover our costs.”

The Gordon-Rushville Public Schools in northwest Nebraska have also struggled to cover the treatment costs for students with mental and behavioral health problems, said Merrell Nelsen, the district’s superintendent. In some cases, he said, the district has to pay to drive students from Gordon to treatment centers in Scottsbluff — a 130-mile, one-way trip.

Nelsen said the district maintains an $8.8 million budget, and spent $992,000 on special-education services last year. The district has 720 students, and 15 percent qualify for special-needs services.

“At the end of the day, you have a responsibility to the kids,” Nelsen said. “You have to do what’s right for them, and that is going to involve spending money.”

Read more at Neb. schools feel squeeze in special ed. funding.

[Via SF Gate]

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