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."
Schools in Grand Island have also had to dig into their local general funds to cover the cost of school psychologists, nurses and other staff who help special-needs students, said Virgil Harden, the district's executive business director.
"Maybe they're wheelchair-bound, or maybe they're just learning disabled," Harden said. "All kinds of students come to us at different levels. We have an obligation to (offer services), and obviously we aren't going to back away from that. If the state doesn't send us that appropriation to cover those costs, then it gets covered by the general fund -- and it takes away resources that we have for non-special education students."
Special-education funding is a major part of the overall school-funding debate, but it's particularly important for smaller schools.
The funding formula that distributes general aid to schools is based on land values and student enrollment. That formula favors larger, urban schools that have lower land values and larger student populations. Smaller districts with valuable, taxable farm land and declining student numbers receive less -- but special-education funding goes to all schools that have special-needs students.
Sen. Kate Sullivan, the chairwoman of the Legislature's Education Committee, said she hopes to advance a bill this year that would give districts more flexibility to grow their own budgets.
Sullivan, of Cedar Rapids, said lawmakers will need to be cautious as they decide how much to spend in general state-aid to schools. The funding is expected to grow somewhere between 5 percent, the amount proposed by the governor, and 10 percent, the increase that will happen automatically if current state law remains unchanged.
"Yes, our economy may be on the upswing, but we're still going to continue to be cautious," Sullivan said. "We can't get overly optimistic. That's just the reality of it. As much as we value education in this state -- and I think people want to see it increased as much as possible -- we just have to temper that a little bit."
Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams, the previous committee chairman, said schools have become more aggressive in seeking special education funding after cutbacks in other types of state aid.
"I think the school districts have made the case that there is a need," Adams said. "Personally, I'm not sure that they've been as vocal in the past as they have been in the last year or two. They've having to cover the cost regardless, and this gives them a little relief."