Special education costs take up large chunk of Baltimore's school budget

Baltimore’s school system is once again set to spend roughly a quarter of its $1.3 billion budget on special education services.

This year’s proposed budget, which the school board is scheduled to vote on May 8, allocates more than $278 million for a variety of special education services — about the same as last year. Most of it pays for staff positions to educate about 12,000 students in special education programs.

The programs serve about 15 percent of the district’s student population. Budget consultants said last year that the disproportionate amount of money spent on special education contributed to a $130 million deficit last year. The consultants, from Education Resource Strategies, found the city spends more on special education than similar cities and other school systems in the region.

But district officials say it’s a necessary price to pay when they’re tasked with educating students who come from extreme poverty, have experienced trauma and are diagnosed with special needs.

“I don’t know that it’s necessarily reflecting an inefficiency,” said Alison Perkins-Cohen, the district’s chief of staff. “More, it’s reflecting factors like the needs of students and the cost of providing the kinds of services that those students need and are entitled to.”

As one way to drive down the cost, the district is working to ensure it is not over-identifying students who require special services, said Debra Brooks, the district’s executive director of special education.

Many younger students come to school showing signs of a speech-language impairment or other developmental delays, Brooks said. The district is instituting early interventions to try to limit the scope of services a student needs down the line.

“If we are successful with that, only the more severe cases will end up receiving special education services,” chief academic officer Sean Conley said. “We want to understand any gaps as soon as possible. We can then identify the resources and interventions before that gap gets larger.

Federal law requires public schools to educate students with disabilities in the “least restrictive environment” possible. Many of those students receive additional support within a general education classroom, or get individualized help for part of the day from a speech-language pathologist or reading specialist.

The district also operates several citywide special education programs and separate public schools to serve students with disabilities.

When none of those options are adequate, the district helps pay a student’s tuition at a private facility. The district’s budget proposal would designate $33.5 million to cover the costs of non-public placements. That’s the lowest level in at least five years, officials said.

“We have seen a significant decrease in the number of students we’re sending out for non-public placements,” Brooks said. “As we are providing greater supports in Baltimore City Public Schools, we are able to bring students back to their comprehensive schools.”

The district also budgets $48.7 million for specialized transportation services for students who can’t walk to school, ride the bus or use the MTA service provided by the district.

Part of that money pays for taxis to take children to and from school. During the 2016-2017 school year, the district spent more than $8 million on taxis.

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