Dakota Harnish, 6, talks with teacher’s aide Kelly Morgan during class. Dakota is autistic and his mother, Alicia Groff, says some of his past
Dakota Harnish, 6, talks with teacher's aide Kelly Morgan during class. Dakota is autistic and his mother, Alicia Groff, says some of his past teachers admitted they aren't sure how to educate her son. Her difficulties reflect the challenges educators face financially and otherwise in teaching special education students. (Bil Bowden)

York County school districts spend about $10,000 to $12,000 per year to educate a student.

But in the past five years, 14 of the 16 county school districts have seen an increase in the overall number of special education students costing at least $25,000 per student, per year.

And in several of those school districts, the increase has been dramatic.

In Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the country, a school district is responsible for educating any student inside its boundaries. If that requires a one-on-one aide, a handicapped-accessible van or an outside placement at a specialized residential facility in a different state, covering the cost is the district's responsibility, too.

The number of special education students who cost local districts more than $25,000 a year grew nearly 82 percent between 2006-07 and 2011-12. And a York Dispatch analysis of data districts supplied to the state during that period shows the cost of educating those students has jumped by at least 91 percent.

Both of those numbers far exceed the state increases over the same period -- 25 percent growth in students who cost at least $25,000 a year and 37 percent growth in the cost to educate them, respectively -- and local school districts are feeling the impact.

For example, in 2006-07, the Red Lion Area School District had 13 students who cost between $25,000-$50,000 a year, and one student who cost more than $75,000.

In 2010-11, the most recent data available, Red Lion was up to 41 students in the $25,000-$50,000 category, nine in the $50,000-$75,000 category, and three in the $75,000 and above category.

Special education director Laura Fitz said Red Lion's overall percentage of special education students is slightly under the state average, but insurance and other costs for staff keep going up, driving up their figures in those categories.

"We're really between a rock and a hard place. There are things we have to do. ... We want to make sure students have what they need to have. That's critical, that we meet their needs in the best way. Unfortunately, that means some expensive (options)," Fitz said.

Fluctuating costs: Spring Grove has also seen an increase in these students, and it could be for any number of reasons, said director of pupil services Karyn Brown.

"Students have more complex needs in recent times," she said. "There are more extreme needs of autism; students are identified more."

Decades ago, students with extreme needs were taught at home or in a private setting more often, but now those students are coming into public education, she said. Those students are making "greater strides" as a result, she said, but it does create a burden on taxpayers.

There's no cavalry of state special education funding coming to the rescue, though. Special education funding has remained close to stagnant for several years; state officials have said they've made up for that by increasing other funding pools.

The state does offer a contingency fund to help defray the "extraordinary costs" of special education students with significant disabilities, said Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller. Six York County districts received some of those funds in the past three years, led by Red Lion with $257,000.

It's not enough, school district officials said. They have been asking for years for a revamp to the special education formula so funding more closely mirrors actual fluctuations in costs.

Without it, districts are left to the whims of wherever students' families want to live. District officials emphasized they take no issue with the families, who are simply using their child's right to a free public education. It's the funding system that needs to be examined, business managers and special-education directors said.

If the family of a first-grader who costs $100,000 a year wants to move from Red Lion to Spring Grove tomorrow, Spring Grove would be on the hook. Spring Grove would do everything it could to help that student succeed, Brown said. But that $100,000 has to come from somewhere, since it's a mandated cost.

District business managers said they set up contingency funds each year just in case there are more special education students coming in than expected.

Budget issues: "When a student comes in midway, and you're not prepared for it, you have to find the money," said West York School District Superintendent Emilie Lonardi.

Taxpayers don't necessarily understand those mandated costs, she said, when they ask why budgets are increasing.

"That's one of the constraints on a budget. You have to find the money" for special education, Lonardi said.

Officials said transportation is one big factor in those costs, as some students need specialized vans for transportation, and districts lose the mass transit cost savings. As much as they can, districts have been trying to keep students closer or in-house for their education to cut transportation costs.

Southern York School District at one point cut 5 percent of every building's budget to cover special education cost increases, said chief financial and operations officer Wayne McCullough.

Southern went from four students in the $25,000-$50,000 category in 2006-07 to 30 in the same category in 2010-11.

The district's state and federal special-education funding in recent years? Flat.

Southern business manager Susan Green said they take new special education students "with open arms," but that at the same time it's a constant challenge to "figure out how to fund it."

David DePew, Dover Area School District's special education supervisor, said a few special education students showed up this fall who the district didn't know about in advance.

"They all required extensive placements. That's something you can't necessarily budget for. You didn't know about them," he said.

All districts are bound by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The federal law requires them to find the "least restrictive" environment to teach the student. Essentially, the best option is for the student to be taught with their regular education peers.

For some, that's not possible, and that one-on-one aide, teacher, therapist or nurse can add significantly to the cost.

"Whatever is most appropriate for them is where they end up going. We don't necessarily look at the cost up front," DePew said.

-- Reach Andrew Shaw at ashaw@yorkdispatch.com

See also: New tactics for helping special ed students