Stanislaus County special education changes need outsider look

After snipping, chopping and whacking their budgets for several years, Stanislaus County school superintendents are looking for greater efficiency in a program that has been largely sheltered from cuts: special education.

The Superintendents’ Council — which represents districts throughout the county with the notable exception of Modesto — has initiated a process to move special ed programs away from the county Office of Education to one of the larger school districts, either Ceres or Turlock.

The superintendents say such a change could save up to $2.5

One reason the budget squeeze hasn’t been as bad for SCOE is that it operates special ed programs on a fee-for-service basis in which individual districts pay SCOE based on the number of students and services they receive. State and federal reimbursements for special ed, long promised, have never covered all of the costs, so districts increasingly subsidize special ed from their general funds — in theory at least reducing the programs available to students in regular classrooms.

Superintendents have been concerned about the costs of special education for years — long before the current budget crisis.

Whereas a district might spend $7,000 to $8,000 a year for the education of a child in a typical classroom, the cost of special education can pencil out to $26,000, $47,000 or even $70,000 a year per student, depending on the severity of the disability.

And public schools don’t have the option to just say “no.” State law requires them to provide a free, safe and appropriate education to every student.We aren’t going to weigh in yet on whether special ed should remain with SCOE or move. But we do see several key points:

The quality of special ed programs is not in dispute here. Some parents and some SCOE teachers fear larger class sizes or other unwelcome changes if the administrative unit changes. We don’t foresee mass changes because every special ed student has an IEP — Individual Education Plan — which spells out the types of instruction and services he or she should receive.

The district superintendents are prudent and perfectly right in looking for cost efficiencies in every area. Very likely, special ed students would remain on the same campus and with the same teacher as they have now, but the teacher might have a different employer. Overall governance of special ed would remain with the Superintendents’ Council.

The numbers used by the three key parties — the superintendents, SCOE and the SCOE union — are so far apart that it is essential that there be an independent, outside analysis of the savings. That’s going to come from the state Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which does just this kind of review.

Moving special ed out of SCOE would dramatically reduce the size and scope of SCOE, reducing its work force by almost half. Because of bumping rights, employees not involved with special ed could lose their jobs. So anxiety at SCOE is natural and understandable.

Detractors see this as union busting, but if the change is made, the employees would still be under a union contract, just a different one.

County teachers and employees have not taken the financial hits that those in school districts have taken, creating a basic fairness question. The biggest discrepancy is in benefits. This is heightened because there are campuses where a teacher receiving less compensation from his or her district works in a classroom next door to a SCOE teacher making significantly more.

Because this not an issue of quality but of dollars, a change should be made only if the savings will be significant both short- and long-term. We’re counting on an outside team to provide an honest and accurate appraisal that can help identify whether that’s the case.