York County school districts, long clamoring for a more fair distribution of special-education funding, are keeping an eye on a special-education funding bill nearing the governor's approval.
The House and Senate unanimously approved a special-education bill that now awaits the governor's signature. Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to sign it into law, according to Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller.
The bill would create a commission of government officials to develop a new formula to distribute special-education funding around Pennsylvania.
Many, if not all, school districts in York County have complained the funding doesn't reflect the actual cost and enrollment of their special-education students.
Instead, it's primarily based off an estimate that special-education students make up 16 percent of the overall student population in each school district.
Since districts can vary widely on how many special-education students they have, even year to year, and each student's cost can be extremely different, the fund-
ing can be lacking or even excessive, said South Western business manager Jeff Mummert.
One student could cost $15,000 for a district to educate, while another with extreme needs could cost $100,000. The current formula has few ways to adjust for that variance. Pennsylvania distributes about $1 billion for special-education from state tax dollars.
The proposal: There's no actual change in funding included in the bill. That will have to come from the commission, which will have to decide what formula to propose using, and if funding should change.
Mummert pointed out that just as there are inequalities now, there will still be inequalities after the formula changes unless funding is increased to help everyone.
"You have to do it so it's not punitive," Mummert said. "How do you find the money to correct it?"
School districts regularly point to rising special-education expenses as a factor in property tax hikes or the need to cut expenses elsewhere; special education is a federal mandate, so districts can't cut back there.
The districts: The Red Lion Area School District has had special-education costs rise slightly in recent years, from $10.7 million in 2011-12 to a projected $11.3 million by next school year.
Business manager Terry Robinson said in the past, he's seen double-digit percentage jumps, and even now, "7 percent is still significant" for growth in expenses.
York City School District officials welcome funding formula scrutiny.
"We believe that it is a positive development to have the funding mechanism reviewed because of the significant impact special education has on the finances of the district," said business manager Richard Snodgrass.
But Snodgrass and other business managers at other districts, such as Dallastown, were hesitant to say exactly how the bill would impact their district, as nothing is yet known about how the commission will change the formula.
PA Partnerships for Children, a state children's advocacy group, believes the commission's work will be fruitful.
"We hope this effort results in a funding formula that provides more precise special-education funding to school districts based on the true needs of their students and links any increases in funding to stronger accountability measures," said CEO Joan Benso.
-- Reach Andrew Shaw at firstname.lastname@example.org