As they look to the 2018-19 school year, local education officials and special education representatives visited Sacramento early this month to advocate for more equitable funding for services for students with disabilities.

About 19 percent of students in the Del Norte-Humboldt Special Education Local Plan Area receive special education services, according to local SELPA director Mindy Fattig. The two counties have the highest percentage of special education students in California and yet with funding in the $400 per child range, the Humboldt-Del Norte SELPA is the seventh lowest funded in the state, she said.

A new assembly bill, AB 3136, currently circulating the state legislature would increase the funding rate for special education plan areas to the 95th percentile, Fattig said. But, she said, she and other SELPA representatives across the state met with state legislators the first week in May to encourage them increase the special education funding rate to the 50th percentile.

Del Norte County Superintendent of Schools Jeff Harris, Humboldt County Superintendent of Schools Chris Hartley and Michael Quinlan, superintendent of Garfield Elementary School District near Eureka joined Fattig in Sacramento.

According to Harris, they spoke with State Sen. Mike McGuire, staff in Assemblyman Jim Wood’s office, Tanya Lieberman, deputy chief consultant for the California State Assembly Committee on Education and staff with Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell’s office.

O’Donnell authored AB 3136 with his colleague Eloise Reyes. It was introduced in the Assembly on Feb. 16, 2018.

Harris said McGuire asked questions about how the funding levels for the California Public Employees Retirement and State Teachers’ Retirement systems affect the district’s ability to provide services for students. The conversation with Lieberman included a discussion about how increased funding for special education would mean savings in the school district’s general fund, which serves all students, Harris said.

“Money in the general fund goes to all students including special education students,” Harris said. “There are a lot of nuances around education, around providing additional support for special needs students, for gifted and talented students, for homeless students, students that are children of trauma. When you really start looking at how do we provide for the needs of all students, that’s really what your base funding is for. Additional funds come with additional supports. It was a different perspective than what a lot of them had been thinking of.”

Funding rates for California’s 132 SELPAs were first established under a 1997 assembly bill using the current census data and have not changed since, Fattig said. Each SELPAs base rate is funded based on the average daily attendance of the entire student population within a SELPA not just those with special needs, she said.

The Humboldt-Del Norte SELPA is funded at a base rate of 21,000 students, according to Fattig.

The local SELPA receives about $470 per child in special education funding, according to Harris. Some SELPAs, like the Modoc SELPA, receive more than $900 per child, he said.

The state average special education funding rate is about $530, Harris said.

In Del Norte County Unified School District, it costs about $5.6 million a year to deliver services to special education students, Harris said. The district is responsible for funding between 40 and 60 percent of that $5.6 million, he said.

“This is a general fund contribution to special education,” Harris said. “The district is contributing a couple million (dollars) a year to special ed.”

Despite the disparity in special education funding, Harris said he and other education officials recognized that as it’s currently written, AB 3136 may not be a realistic option. According to Harris, AB 3136 would increase the state’s cost for special education to about $1.5 billion.

“Our request of both Assemblyman Wood’s office and Sen. McGuire was while we understood $1.5 billion could not be done, if you took all the districts currently below the state average and just brought those districts up to the state average of $535 or $540, whatever it is, that, for our SELPA would have meant several million dollars,” Harris said.

According to Fattig, bringing all the districts whose state special education funds are below average up to the state average or above the state average, would bring an additional $1 million to their general funds. It could add more money for services for preschoolers with special needs as well as other students with significant disabilities, she said.

SELPAs receive no funding for services for preschoolers with special needs, Fattig said. In Del Norte County, preschoolers are the largest population of students with disabilities, she said.

However, increased funding wouldn’t necessarily mean there would be more services for students with disabilities, Fattig said. Federal and state law require school districts to offer support to its special needs students. Instead, the additional funding would mean districts wouldn’t have to dip into their general fund to provide special education services, allowing for more dollars for services benefiting their entire student population, Fattig said.

Additional funding for special education would also mean increased money for interventions to students before they need to be evaluated for special education programs, she said

“It’s kind of ironic,” Fattig said. “You fund special education and by funding special education you’re reducing the general fund contribution, which increases money for interventions, which then would ultimately reduce your special ed population. That’s kind of a goal there — intervention as much as possible and kids not requiring a label to get services, but to provide services for all kids.”

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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