Full reimbursement for special education programming was promised, but hasn’t been delivered, local officials say

    The Crookston School Board this week, along with at least a couple hundred other school districts in Minnesota, approved two resolutions, largely symbolic in nature, that basically call upon the state and federal government to fully fund special education programming that they require school districts to provide.

    “The state and federal government mandate what you have to do, but they don’t back it up with funding,” Board Chair Frank Fee said when he introduced the first of the two largely identical resolutions asking the state and federal government to “fully fund special education services.”

    While stressing that the district has, is, and will continue to provide necessary special ed services to kids and families in the district, Fee noted that over the past three years or so, the district has spent around $1 million out of the general fund to cover funding gaps between what the government mandates the district provide in special education and what the government actually reimburses the district for that programming.

    “It hasn’t hampered what we offer, but, hopefully, they’ll start backing some of the mandates they put in place for us to do,” Fee said.

    The way the system is set up now, Superintendent Chris Bates explained, there are more requests from school districts for special education reimbursements than government dollars available to cover them. So districts are given a proportion that, for the Crookston district, usually hovers in the 50 percent reimbursement range but sometimes approaches 70 percent.

    By passing the resolutions, Fee said, it would “be nice if to get another 15 or 20 percent.”

Critical program here

    Special Services Director Kathy Stronstad, contacted by the Times after this week’s school board meeting for more information, said she concurred with everything that was said at the meeting. She also reiterated that she, the board and the district remains committed to provide the “best services for all of our students,” with added emphasis on “all.”

    “The issue is not that we are questioning the services but rather that we don’t get the funding to cover all of the costs associated with educating all of our special needs students,” Stronstad explained. The costs, she added, can vary in fairly volatile fashion in a relatively short period of time, depending on the size of the audience needing services, and the degree, scope and intensity of the services they need.

    The number of Crookston students being served by special ed programming remains fairly consistent from year to year, she said, at around 20 percent of the total student body. The services range from “very minimal” to “full-time services” that in some cases require a single staff member assigned to a single student.

Mandates, funding

    School districts are mandated to guarantee a “Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)” in the least restrictive environment for all students, Stronstad explained. When the Individuals with Disabilities Act became law in 1975, she continued, the federal government promised to fund 40 percent of the additional cost to educate children with disabilities. But, she added, the federal government has never funded more than 15 percent of the additional cost. As for state government, Stronstad said, while Minnesota is committed to strong special education programs, like Congress, the state legislature has never appropriated enough money to reimburse schools, either.

    “Instead, it budgets a fixed amount that’s pro-rated by districts’ enrollment, rather than the number of special ed students served or the complexities of their disabilities,” she said.

    At both governmental levels, funding has simply not kept up with the rising costs of the programming mandated for students with special needs, Stronstad added.

    If the resolutions passed by the Crookston board and school boards elsewhere result in more government dollars coming in to cover special education programming, obviously that would be excellent, Stronstad said. But if the resolutions don’t achieve their desired goal, special education programming in Crookston will remain strong, she noted.

    “I am extremely proud of the services we provide our students here in Crookston,” Stronstad said. “We have an amazing special education staff who are very dedicated to the students they work with.”