New Castle Area superintendent John Sarandrea understands the frustration of trying to find money in a school district budget for special education costs that aren't covered by the state special education subsidy.
He also understands the frustration of parents of special needs students who want the best possible educational program for their children.
Mr. Sarandrea is the father of two special needs sons, one who has cerebral palsy and one who is severely mentally retarded. The annual bill to educate his sons is about $75,000, he told members of the state Special Education Funding Formula Commission that met Wednesday at the University of Pittsburgh Student Union.
"I've lived this and I've administered it," said Mr. Sarandrea, adding that his district's total special education costs are $6 million while the special education funding from the state totals about $3 million.
The state funds the 500 school districts on the assumption that about 16 percent of their student populations are special education students. Mr. Sarandrea told the commission that 22 percent of New Castle's students are designated as qualifying for special education services.
But even in the North Allegheny School District, where 8.4 percent of the students are in special education, the state subsidy of $3.6 million doesn't cover the district's $12 million special education costs because of the severity of the disability of the students and the special services required for their education, said assistant superintendent Arlene Wheat.
Ira Weiss, solicitor for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said about 18.1 percent of the district's students require special education services. He said the Pittsburgh district has seen a 63 percent increase over the past seven years in nursing costs associated with special education students with complex needs.
Mr. Weiss recommended a new formula that takes into consideration not only a district's actual special education population but also the variables in cost associated with the students' conditions.
All of the school officials reported an increase in the number of students diagnosed with autism and said those students required extensive and expensive services.
The school officials' testimony was provided to the legislative commission, co-chaired by state Rep. Bernie O'Neill, R-Bucks and state Sen. Pat Brown, R-Lehigh. The commission is attempting to unravel and rewrite the formula and procedures for special education funding. As part of that process it also will look into the special education funding formula for charter schools.
The most recent statistics available from the state Department of Education show that, as of December 2012, there were 295,502 special education students between the ages of 3-21, with a wide range of disabilities.
Currently there are two streams of special education funding: The special education subsidy to all districts based on the 16 percent assumption and a $9.3 million contingency fund for districts with special education students whose extensive disabilities create extraordinary costs.
To qualify for money from the contingency fund, districts must apply annually on a student-by-student basis outlining the extraordinary needs and expenses of the individual students, said Ronald Wells special education adviser in the Department of Education. The department reviews each case and approves payment starting with the cases involving the highest costs.
Each district in the state, with the exception of Philadelphia, has an annual cap of $150,000 it can receive from the contingency fund. The cap for Philadelphia, which has an enrollment of more than 200,000, is $300,000.
The department warns districts that requests for funding for students whose expenses are less than $60,000 likely will not be granted because the fund is expected to be depleted before they get to that level of request, Mr. Wells said.
In the 2012-13 school year, 236 requests from the contingency fund were granted, but that represented just 30 percent of the requests. An additional 228 requests where costs exceeded $60,000 were not approved because districts or educational entities had already reached their cap. And another 324 requests were below the $60,000 threshold.
During Wednesday's hearing, state Rep. Michael Sturla, D-Lancaster, said he believed the uniform $150,000 cap on money from the contingency fund was unfair to large districts that would likely have a higher number of students whose cases could qualify for funding.
Acting Secretary of Education William Harner, who attended the hearing, said he is familiar with all of the issues raised by the local school officials because he faced the same issues as superintendent of the Cumberland Valley School District. Mr. Harner said in addition to improving the special education funding formula, he will push for more supports for early childhood education to ensure students are proficient readers by third grade.
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1590.