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Bill seeks to help schools better cover high cost of special education needs

State law requires school districts to provide appropriate and necessary special education to children with disabilities from birth to 21 years of age. In the 2020-21 school year, about 17% of Minnesota students (roughly 149,000) qualified for such services.

Special instruction and services for children with disabilities are based on the assessment and individualized education program. But student needs vary — from being modest to care-intensive requiring the presence of a full-time aide for medically fragile students — and many times those costs create a budgetary hole for school districts, because federal and state funds cover only about 60% of their total special education spending.

Sponsored by Rep. Heather Edelson (DFL-Edina), HF3963 would create a new category of special education aid, called “high-cost services aid,” to provide additional special education funding for school districts that serve students whose total special education costs are more than three times the $19,644 statewide average special education costs per student.

The bill, which has no Senate companion, was laid over by the House Education Finance Committee Wednesday for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill.

No fiscal note has been provided, but Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton) called for getting more federal support with the help of Minnesota’s congressional delegation.

Jeff Jorgensen, director of student support services for Edina Public Schools, said the bill would bring some budgetary relief, particularly to smaller school districts that care for students with high personal needs.

Providing one-to-one nursing support can easily drive-up costs, he said. His district receives about 62% aid to cover special education costs. This puts a limitation on the type of services his district can provide in-house.

Heidi Nistler, director of special education for the Sherburne and Northern Wright Special Education Cooperative, said creating a program for one student can sometimes cost $200,000 to take care of medical and safety issues involved. Being responsible for about half of those high-service costs hinders the district’s ability to meet the needs of other special education students, she said.

Contracting for nurses can cost about $100,000 a year per nurse, said Michelle Cuka, supervisor of specialized services for Eastern Carver County Schools. Her district has 1,500 students with special needs, and three of them would fall into the high-cost services need.

Cuka acknowledges the bill will not take care of all the financial needs related to providing special education. “It’s definitely a step forward,” she said.

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