York school districts are starting the year with new special education funding — the first increase from the state in seven years, and the first budget that includes a new funding formula for special education in public school districts. But in many cases in York County, school officials say the increase is slight at best.
The average increase for York County schools is about $46,000, and that includes a $173,696 increase for York City, the highest in the county.
Without that figure, the average is about $37,492 per school.
The costs for special education students vary per year, but districts often budget about $20,000 for students with special needs. However, some students who require more extensive care can have costs that triple and quadruple that, said George Ioannidis, business manager at Spring Grove Area School District.
Special education costs: If a child has extensive mental health or behavioral needs, requires special transportation and needs a full-time aide throughout the day, the cost to educate that child can average between $70,000 and $80,000 each year, Ioannidis said.
That's not the cost for every special education student, but Ioannidis and several other York County school officials said they've seen marked increases in the cases of students who require extra care.
"Our costs have been rising, even though the number of special education cases are holding steady," said Terry Robinson, business manager at the Red Lion Area School District.
And that can happen at any time throughout the year if a student with special needs transfers into the district, Robinson said.
The Red Lion district budgeted $10.4 million for special education in the 2012-13 school year. That has grown to $11.7 million for the 2014-15 school year.
New funding formula: The variation in costs was addressed in a special education funding commission report, released in December 2013, which recommended schools be reimbursed based on the number of students and their types of needs. In the past, schools were reimbursed based on the assumption that a flat 16 percent of students in a school district had special education needs.
The new formula for public schools was adopted as part of this year's final 2014-15 state budget, though a new formula has yet to be adopted for funding special education in charter schools. As part of that new formula, another $20 million was spread across the state's 500 school districts, based on the number of students and their needs.
The updated formula only affects new special education funding, said Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township.
"Any money moving forward is going to be based on actual needs," Grove said.
Spending requirements: But the cost requirements of federal and state mandates for special education students are far above what schools receive, said West York Area Superintendent Emilie Lonardi.
"The money doesn't follow the mandate," she said.
At Spring Grove, the district spent just under $7 million during the past 2013-14 year, according to Ioannidis.
The $28,313 increase helped this year, he said, taking total state aid for Spring Grove to about $2 million. But that's still less than a third of what the district pays for programming.
"I'm not unhappy, but I'm not going to go around saying we resolved the special education issue," Ioannidis said.
Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York City, said the funding commission and its final report should be reassuring to taxpayers because the General Assembly saw a problem and worked to resolve it.
"This is a good example of our government working," he said.
Future funding: Schreiber said he knows there are still challenges ahead in providing enough aid for special education, which in part comes from a need for more state revenue.
But Grove said schools will always say they need more funding, no matter the line item in question.
"I've never heard any school board director, any superintendent come up and say, 'Thank you for our increase this year,'" Grove said.
Some of the burden is on the state to provide for education costs, he said, but the federal government is responsible for several mandates that drive special education costs. The federal government had promised 40 percent funding for those costs, Grove said, but he can't remember federal funding ever rising more than 22 percent.
Ioannidis said the biggest question about public school funding is where it fits into state priorities.
"Our legislators and governor, as well as our commonwealth through the voters, have to decide to what extent is the state going to subsidize public education," he said.