EXETER — They may not be studying advanced calculus or conducting experiments in chem lab, but their aspirations post-high school are the same when compared to students in other classrooms: striking out on their own, finding a job they can enjoy, and being happy.
But a recent report contends the state increasingly leaves them in the lurch, and leaves local taxpayers paying the price.
When Life Skills teacher Anita McKeown asks her students to choose among hypothetical community college courses, they smile at the prospects. Jesse Sherlinski picks metal welding “so I can make a suit of armor.” Ashley Tietjen shyly says she would make a rose with skills learned in the same class. Victoria Young is more adventurous, raising her hand for almost every suggested course, and raising both hands for the one that would teach paper making.
McKeown teaches basics of independent life to 10 special education students from four area school districts — and that’s a few flakes on the tip of an iceberg. In 2017-18, Luzerne County’s 11 school districts had total special education enrollment of 7,371, each with an Individual Education Plan (IEP), and each with a federal and state legal right to a “Free Appropriate Public Education.”
The catch: “Free” costs, and the price can be steep. According to state data, Luzerne County’s 11 districts spent $98.5 million for special education in 2016-17. And the price has climbed rapidly. A comparison of data from 2008-09 to 2016-17 by the Education Law Center (ELC) found that among Luzerne County’s districts, special education cost increases ranged from 22 percent at Lake-Lehman to 114 percent in Wilkes-Barre Area.
The overwhelming bulk of those increased costs have been borne by local taxpayers. The poster child for this fact locally is Wilkes-Barre Area. From 2008 to 2017, total special education spending increased by $11 million, yet state funding to offset that increase was $640,808.
Put another way, the state paid less than 6 percent of the total increase. There is a small fraction of federal money involved, but here’s the bottom line: Of that $11 million increase, local taxpayers covered almost $10.3 million.
The pattern is the same in every local district: Special education spending rose faster than the state’s contribution to the cost. And the ELC data shows it is a statewide trend. From 2008 to 2016, the state increased special education money by $72 million — which sounds like a lot — but total special education spending soared by $1.54 billion.
The ELC contends this is proof the state is “shortchanging children with disabilities,” and is pushing for an increase this year of $100 million in state money. But Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal released earlier this month added only half that.
Factors and consequences
McKeown doesn’t seem to dwell on this. She smiles freely and praises her charges as “a wonderful class.” When she does touch on state funding, it is either a cheerful acceptance of the lack of space for one-on-one sessions with visiting therapists, or a wistful recollection of four students from Wyoming Valley West who left her class to return to their home district. After spending every day for years with some students, she concedes, “I miss them.”
But the departure of those students is a consequence of the funding debate.
McKeown works for the Luzerne Intermediate Unit, an agency providing services to area schools, primarily special education. When a district has only a student or two in need of a Life Skills class, it can be cheaper to send them to her in the Wyoming Area Secondary Center than to hire a teacher and find the space. In recent years, area districts — particularly the largest ones like WVW — have found enrollment of IEP students has grown enough to justify bringing the service in house.
Yet the savings, if they come, may not be enough. Even the increase in the governor’s proposed budget may not be enough. The Wyoming Valley West School Board recently voted to exceed a state limit on tax increases known as the annual Act 1 Index. The district will to seek an exemption from the limit to cover soaring special education costs. From 2008 to 2016, WVW special ed spending rose by $6.9 million; state aid rose by $426,133.
Greater Nanticoke Area Superintendent Ronald Grevera epitomizes the argument. “Our special education population is increasing to the point whereby 25 percent of our students have an IEP,” he said via email. Special education services have “increased based on need, but the state appears to turn a blind eye to our most vulnerable students with IEPs.
“The irony of the situation is that we are getting significantly less money in special education, but our legal responsibility to our special education students is not absolved.”
A different take
There is a counter argument, one cited by Dallas Business Manager Grant Palfey: When the state legislators crafted the Act 1 restriction, they created the special education exemption precisely to help districts deal with spikes in costs.
“I think the state knew at the time they weren’t giving as much funding as needed, so they created the exemption to go above and beyond the limit.” Such a release valve makes sense, he added, because special education costs can spike with just one or two students requiring high-price services.
“If you get a unique case — say a family moves into the district and there’s a residential placement of a student — one student can cost $30,000 a month. Let’s say you are Northwest Area (the county’s smallest district). Your special education budget might be $1 million, and $300,000 is a big hit.”
Northwest’s 2016-17 special education spending was $3.5 million, but the example is apt. District spending rose by nearly 5o percent since 2008-09, when it was $2.4 million. The change in state funding for the same stretch was a scant $58,631.
Even with the exemption, Palfey said, “The problem is you’re cranking out more local taxes. The state says they have a special, high-expense contingency fund to help reimburse you, but it’s like pulling teeth to get the money. We had only one student qualify over the years.”
While the Education Law Center is pushing for more money in the state education budget, Grevera and Palfey both point to a funding cut that runs through the Department of Health: Medical Assistance payments for some services provided to special education students, usually referred to as ACCESS, the word on the government-issued cards.
“In a hospital setting, a doctor bills for services and they are reimbursed for services whether the patient lives or dies,” Grevera noted. “In the current broken ACCESS system, we bill for services and are denied.”
Palfey concedes ACCESS payments related to special education services dropped several years ago, so much so that it was no longer worth the cost of keeping a part-time person on staff to do the billing. “We weren’t getting paid enough to pay that person, so now we bill through the LIU and they get a 10 percent administration fee.” But he suggests the change may simply have eliminated excess billing by some districts.
The ACCESS spigot started drying up when the state changed companies hired to handle the process, from West Hazleton-based Leader Services to nationally active Public Consulting Group, or PCG. LIU Executive Director Tony Grieco said that change was a response to issues found during an audit by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“It definitely became much more complicated and time-consuming on our end,” Grieco said. Initially, the amount of reimbursement plummeted, though the amounts increased as the LIU got to know the system better.
In 2012-13, the year the change was made, the LIU got only $173,461 for services provided to area schools, when it had been getting close to $1 million in reimbursements before that, Grieco said. The number has returned close to where it was — $840,486 in 2016-17 — but it’s still not as high as reimbursements were under Leader Services.
It’s a lot of money, but in the overall puzzle of special education funding, “the Medical ACCESS piece is a part of it,” Grieco said, “but it’s a small part.”
For students like Jesse and Victoria, these are abstract and distant debates. They work every day on assignments like “scavenger hunts” through newspaper articles, learning basic computer skills, or mulling what they want — and can — do post-high school.
They are dismissed a half-hour ahead of the rest of the school because some may require special transport, and others may react poorly to the noise of a crowd crushing toward the doors. But they smile, say goodbye and proudly head off, another day’s work done.
‘We have a wonderful class,’ Anita McKeown says of her Life Skills students at Wyoming Area Secondary Center.
Anita McKeown’s Life Skills class is shown during a recent school day at Wyoming Area Secondary Center.
Jesse Sherlinski does classwork in Anita McKeown’s Life Skills class at Wyoming Area Secondary Center. Advocacy groups point to data showing increases in state special education funding have lagged far behind actual costs, ‘shortchanging’ the students and putting the cost on local taxpayers.