NJ’s Special Education Funding: A Canary in a Coal Mine

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Let’s just call this Special Education Week. (Here’s my NJ Spotlight piece. Here’s my WHYY piece.). A story just popped up, courtesy of The Record, regarding Elmwood Park Schools, a working class borough in Bergen County. The story deals – tada! – with Elmwood Park’s fiscal disarray, which is mainly blamed on the expense of educating kids with disabilities.

At Monday night’s School Board’s meeting, Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf appeared and informed board members and administrators that the DOE was appointing a state fiscal monitor because for two consecutive years Elmwood Park has been unable to balance its budget. (No word on why the Board awarded Superintendent Richard Tomko a merit raise on top of his $189K annual salary.)

The news story and accompanying Record editorial blame the district’s fiscal ills on the costs incurred by students with disabilities, particularly those who are receive mandated services in out-of-district placements. Both Comm. Cerf and Superintendent Tomko referenced these costs when describing the district’s financial disarray.  From The Record:

Tomko on Monday afternoon said increased enrollment, but particularly among special needs students, is a leading cause of the district’s financial instability. The same factor is once again coming into play this school year, he said. 

Since school began in September, the district has enrolled eight students whose needs demand unique care in facilities outside the district, Tomko said. 

Anticipated costs associated with educating these additional special needs students, among others the district by law cannot turn away, will likely exceed by $200,000 the $6 million set aside for special education in 2012-13, Tomko estimated. The total budget for this year is $36 million.

(Comm. Cerf is not so quick to put this deficit completely on the backs of special ed kids, referring to “material weaknesses” in district financial controls.)

Certainly, the cost of special education burdens Elmwood Park Schools. It’s one of New Jersey’s many small districts, with five schools and a total enrollment of 2,100 kids,  hardly a scaffold for efficient delivery of instructional services. According to Elmwood’s budget for 2012, 364 kids meet the qualifications for special education. That’s about 19%, which is high – NJ usually wiggles in at about 15% — but not completely out of line. Of those 364, 100 kids are sent out-of-district, mostly to private placements, which can cost, as the Record editorial points out, more than $100,000 per year.

These high costs are exacerbated by Elmwood Park’s extremely low cost per pupil: $10,229 per pupil (total budgetary cost: $14,999), well below NJ’s average of $13,253, according to most recent info from the DOE.  The district itself advertises this fact in a narrative on the DOE website:

The district’s commitment is to continue to provide unwavering academic success within a sound fiscal strategy. By reviewing the financial data provided in the school report card, it is evident that Elmwood Park’s per pupil expenditure continues to be far less than what the state has identified as “adequate.” Be that as it may, we remain competitive with districts throughout the state and within the same district factor grouping.

The Record editorial offers this solution:

The best approach going forward would be for special education costs to be borne by the state. We need to explore creating a dedicated fund to do that. No matter where special education children are living at the moment, their educational needs are an issue for a government entity with greater resources than a local school district.

Interesting idea, and consistent with the philosophy behind the School Funding Reform Act. (The money follows the child, regardless of place of residence.) But a bit simplistic and, anyway, taxes are taxes, right? A more granular approach would examine ways to scale up high-quality special education programs, private or public (traditional or charter), perhaps on a county-wide basis, well beyond what we do with Special Services school districts or shared services.  Covering the high costs of special education – mandated through state and federal law – is just  a symptom of New Jersey’s inefficient and unwieldy school infrastructure. This is a big picture problem, not a circumscribed one.

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  • kallikak, January 11, 2013 @ 6:00 pm Reply

    “Covering the high costs of special education – mandated through state and federal law – is just a symptom of New Jersey’s inefficient and unwieldy school infrastructure.”

    No, Laura, 'infrastructure' is not the problem. It's more a result of the Legislature and courts turning Sp. Ed into a very expensive cottage industry in this state. Just look at the penetration of classified students and related costs in most other states to see the contrast.

  • NJ Left Behind, January 13, 2013 @ 3:38 pm Reply

    Hi, Kallikak. It's both: you're right about comparisons with other states, but part of this “cottage industry's” growth is due to the fact that we can't efficiently educate any subgroup because we're so fragmented.

  • kallikak, January 14, 2013 @ 2:19 pm Reply

    The typical 15% penetration of classified students per district is a significant subgroup.

    So what do you propose, county-wide Sp. Ed districts?

    The core cost premium will persist, whatever the organizational structure.

  • NJ Left Behind, January 15, 2013 @ 3:40 pm Reply

    We have those already: special services districts, one per county. Some are more directed towards g & t (magnets). But, yes, in general I think we need to go in the direction — special ed and otherwise — of recreating our infrastructure.

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