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Schools support special ed suit

The South Whidbey Board of Education voted Monday to throw its support to other school districts suing the state for failing to adequately fund special education in public schools.

At a board meeting Monday night, school board directors voted unanimously to approve a resolution supporting the 11 school districts filing the lawsuit. That vote, if it helps win the suit, could mean South Whidbey schools could receive more money in the future to do more with its special education students.

“We are expected to fully fund education, the state should have to do their part too,” Board President Helen Price Johnson said.

Price Johnson said passing the resolution does not require any financial obligation on the part of the South Whidbey School District.

The 11 districts formed a consortium called the School Districts’ Alliance for Adequate Fund of Special Education. They filed their suit in Thurston County Superior Court on Sept. 30 through the Seattle firm of Preston, Gates and Ellis. The suit does not seek recovery of damages, but rather asks the court to retain jurisdiction over special education funding for “a sufficient number of years” to compel the state to comply with court orders.

The courts have ruled that Washington State is obligated to fully fund basic education; special education falls within that obligation. The suit claims the gap between what the state is paying versus what it should be paying exceeds $100 million dollars a year.

With special education costs increasing every year, school districts have had to rely on local levy funds to pay for unfunded expenditures.

Bob Brown, South Whidbey’s superintendent, said this week that the district has to spend much more on each of its 230 special education students than is funded by the state, spending that directly impacts local tax payers.

“The additional funds come out of our levy money,” he said. “Levy dollars should be going for enrichment and enhancement purposes and programs that benefit all students.”

The state allocation for basic education is about $4,800 per student. For special education students, South Whidbey receives an additional $4,000 above basic education funds for each student.

But Ben Thomas, the district’s business manager, says it’s never enough to cover what the district spends.

During each of the past three years special education at South Whidbey was underfunded by nearly $200,000, according to Thomas. Diane Watson, who supervises the special education program in the district, said special education has been underfunded for years and the cost of educating those students is increasing.

Some items funded with special education money are special education para-educators and teachers, occupational and physical therapists, buses with wheelchair lifts, and speech and language services. Some students require a full-time para-educator while at school, a cost of $12,000 a year.

Watson said she supports the effort by the Alliance.

“The funding of education for all our children is the paramount duty of the state,” she said.

While the state does provide school districts for part of the shortfall with so-called “Safety Net” funds, Watson said they are inadequate because it requires that districts continue to use levy dollars before it provides any assistance.

In 2002-03, Safety Net paid less than $12 million in relief to school districts, while the unfunded portion of actual special education costs was an estimated $102 million according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, or OSPI.

Watson said the funding formulas for special education are outdated.

District officials would like to see an end to the requirement that districts spend their levy money on special education before becoming eligible for the state’s safety-net funding and improve the method of calculating special education funding.

The state pays for special education services up to 13 percent of the school district’s population including preschoolers.

The state education officer, Bergeson has proposed removing those 3- and 4-year-olds from the count to create more slots for school-age youth.

According to OSPI’s Web site. Bergeson has requested that the legislature allocate $400,000 to study special education formulas. So far it hasn’t happened. The two-year budget proposal from Bergeson also includes a $200 million increase for special education.

In a press release, the Alliance states that it chose special education as the focus of its lawsuit because the mandates surrounding the provisions of quality education for special need students are clearly outlined in both federal and state law. This is the first step to address the state’s educational funding problems in a specifics area rather than to tackle the massive underlying issue of restructuring the entire education funding system.

Two court decisions from 1983 and 1988 may have a bearing on the case. In 1983, Superior Court Judge Robert Doran ruled that special education must be fully funded by the state and in 1988 he said the state needed to implement a “safety net to help districts fund special education.”

The members of the Alliance are the following school districts: Bellingham, Bethel, Burlington-Edison, Everett, Federal, Issaquah, Lake Washington, Mercer island Northshore, Riverside and Spokane. There are 296 school districts in Washington state.

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