No one disputes that children with special needs in school districts should have special services.
Who should pay for those services is an issue that demands your attention, because the Minnesota Legislature wants to freeze dollars they pay to help fund salaries and some special equipment for special education.
This is important for people to understand, because school districts by law must provide the services, even though they don’t have enough federal and state aid to pay for them.
The result is school districts are subsidizing special education services from their general operating funds. To make up that loss in the general fund, school districts either must cut expenses for all students or increase the property tax levy.
In other words, to avoid increasing taxes at the state level, the Republican majorities are kicking the mandated expense to the local school districts already struggling with money problems.
Those subsidies are called cross subsidies, and for districts, particularly growing ones, those subsidies are substantial.
For example, in Elk River, the subsidy last year taken from the general fund was $8 million and with the freeze, it is projected to go up another $1 million in 2012 and $1.75 million in 2013.
Another example is Anoka-Hennepin, where $28 million was taken from the general fund in 2009 to make up the shortfall to fund special education services. With the proposed freeze and a projected growth of 2 percent, that subsidy could go up $4.5 million more next school year and $6.75 million more the following year.
Why is this happening?
When the federal government passed the law requiring an individual education plan for each special needs child, it expected to pay 40 percent of that cost. Looking to years 2012 and 2013, it’s projected by the State Department of Education that the federal share of the excess special education costs will be 14 percent for each of the next two years, not the goal of 40 percent.
The state of Minnesota was to make up the difference, but has frozen its annual contribution, which will result in a shortfall for school districts to pick up of $200 million in 2011–12 and $230 million in 2012–13. By freezing special education funding for the next two years, property taxpayers will be picking up the shortfall. Legislators know the public won’t blame them for short-changing special education funding. Local school boards will be blamed because they have no choice but to raise property taxes for this expensive but necessary education and services for special needs children.
It is time for the federal and state governments to pay a greater share of these costs rather than leaving it up to the local property taxpayers. — Don Heinzman, ECM Publishers