by Guy Page
The state’s new special education spending formula should be deferred for a year so the Legislature can give it a much needed-adjustment, said a Northeast Kingdom school board chair whose supervisory union stands to lose significant funding.
The new special education funding system imposed by Act 173 of 2018 passed will cost the North Country Supervisory Union $900,000, severely impacting its ability to serve special needs students, Board Chair Steven Mason told Gov. Phil Scott, administration officials, and lawmakers in an open letter dated Nov. 18.
In particular, Act 173 fails to adequately recognize the extra financial needs of school districts with more-than-normal poverty, rurality, and English language learners, Mason said.
“The implementation of a block grant and increased funding for factors such as poverty, English language learners, and rurality must go hand in hand,” Mason said. “In fact, the implementation of Act 173 without increased weighting for poverty, or other categorical aid, would adversely impact revenues for SU/SDs with high child counts and in turn ultimately impact student services or local tax rates.”
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The full text of the letter from Mason to Gov. Phil Scott and other state officials appears below:
November 18, 2021
Dear Vermont Policy Makers:
The North Country Supervisory Union Board is appealing to you at this time on behalf of our children with the greatest level of needs.
Based on our preliminary FY23 special services budget, it is the belief of the North Country Supervisory Union (NCSU) board that the census block grant model will result in a significant reduction in state special education funding for NCSU and the board is aware of other supervisory unions/districts that will also see meaningful reductions for fiscal year 2023. While we support the educational intent of Act 173, we also believe the Legislature did not envision school systems with high needs being adversely impacted financially.
As you are well aware, Act 173 provides for some adjustment and herein lies the importance of the weighting study called for in the law. In addition, Section 11 of Act 173 calls for a “census grant supplemental adjustment” in relationship to pupil weighting factors. The implementation of Act 173 can only happen equitably in conjunction with increased weighting – or some other means of supplemental adjustment for supervisory unions or districts that have in any year relatively higher costs for students who require additional supports. In short, the implementation of a block grant and increased funding for factors such as poverty, English language learners, and rurality must go hand in hand. In fact, the implementation of Act 173 without increased weighting for poverty, or other categorical aid, would adversely impact revenues for SU/SDs with high child counts and in turn ultimately impact student services or local tax rates.
NCSU stands to realize a reduction of over $900,000 dollars in special education support as a result of moving to a census block grant. Of note, NCSU has approximately 625 students who qualify for Individual Education Plans (IEPs), who represent 24% of our student population.
The block grant is based on overall student enrollment, not on the “child count” of those receiving special education services. In addition to the fact that the model has a built-in bias making it fail to pass the equity test, it is likely unconstitutional under Vermont Law without substantial adjustments applied for differentiated needs.
The flexibility intended in Act 173 to advance a Multi-Tiered System of Supports is not achievable for SUs/SDs like ours and others. It would result in diminished state-level support for those schools that need it the most. Shifting the financial burden to local districts may promote the goal of cost containment but is inherently inequitable in terms of meeting the variable needs. It also fails to maintain efforts associated with Federal requirements for children with different needs across the state.
Because the Task Force on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report will only provide recommendations for the General Assembly to consider this next session, it is not possible for school districts to present budgets to voters for FY23 with a change in special education funding.
It is our firm belief that implementation of a census block grant must be deferred at least another year in order for the Legislature to come up with a model that accomplishes the improvement it seeks while taking into account the disposition on pupil weighting (or other aid) and to consider a supplemental adjustment as established in Section 11 of Act 173.
Steven L Mason
NCSU Board Chair