Special needs cost Baltimore city schools more than one-quarter of district budget

Sonja Santelises, Baltimore public schools CEO, will present proposed budget to the Board of Education on Tuesday.
Sonja Santelises, Baltimore public schools CEO, will present proposed budget to the Board of Education on Tuesday. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun)

Purple hallways lead to the small room where school therapist Anne Marks tries to answer the question: "What has happened to this child?"

Hunger, homelessness, gun violence: Students use the toy figurines on her shelves at City Springs Elementary/Middle School, located in a worn-out stretch of Southeast Baltimore, to reveal their trauma.


A full-time mental health therapist here is not a luxury, administrators say, but a necessity.

"When kids have a lot of trauma," Marks said, "the frontal lobe shuts down — the thinking part of the brain."


Programs to help traumatized, needy and disabled children make up more than one quarter of the city's school $1.3 billion operating budget.

Budget consultants commissioned by schools CEO Sonja Santelises grouped these expenses as "student needs," and said they contributed to the $130 million shortfall that district budget planners confronted this year.

State and city lawmakers have pledged money to help shrink the deficit.

"The fact is it costs more to meet the needs of children living in extreme poverty and children with special needs," Santelises told the school board this year.

Santelises commissioned a study by the consultants as she developed a plan to close her deficit.

The majority of these expenses provide support services to 15 percent of the student population, or about 12,500 students in special education programs.

The consultants from Education Resources Strategies found that the district spends nearly $73 million more on special education than similar cities and area school systems.

City schools have fewer disabled students but spend more on special education than Baltimore County. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, the county spent $161.3 million on about 13,000 special education students; the city spent $203.5 million on 12,500 students.

Advocates for special education caution against oversimplifying comparisons between two very distinct school districts. They note that costs vary widely depending on the disability of each child. Some students might require individual instruction; others might be comfortable in the general classroom. The children may come from different socioeconomic backgrounds or dissimilar life experiences.

"The numbers require a look-behind of many factors," said Leslie Seid Margolis, managing attorney with Disability Rights Maryland. "It is important to understand who the students are — to know their disabilities and the services they require."

City school administrators budgeted $189 million for special education next school year. The school district also budgeted $34.8 million for nonpublic placements for next school year.

Santelises and her staff are scheduled to present their full budget proposal at the school board meeting Tuesday.


The district also faces increasing costs to provide transportation to and from school for students with disabilities, ERS said. The amount is expected to grow by $8 million from 2016 and 2018. the city schools are relying increasingly on taxis to drive homeless students and those with disabilities that preclude their taking school buses.

The number of students riding taxis increased 50 percent in the last six years to 1,200 students. Each student costs the district nearly $6,400, school officials said.

City schools have also faced a shortage of bus drivers, said Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff for Santelises.

"Taxi cabs are expensive, but it's a necessity for us right now," she said. "We just can't transport enough students through the buses."

Special education makes up about $1 million of the $6.4 million budget at City Springs Elementary/Middle School, said principal Rhonda Richetta. The school enrolls about 740 students. One hundred and thirty are in special education programs.

And there are other expenses, including $14,000 for the school's health clinic, where children receive asthma treatments. The central office contributes about $70,000 for the clinic. Some 100 children are on the school's medical emergency list for asthma. Studies have found asthma to be more common among children living in poverty and substandard housing.

Without the full clinic, students would have to leave school to receive asthma treatments from the doctor, Richetta said.

"When my kids go to the doctor for something, they miss the whole day," she said.

Marks, the school therapist, has a caseload of 28 students.

The district contributes $1.5 million for the mental health program that employs Marks and more than 100 other therapists across the school system. Social workers, psychologists and counselors are also assigned to individual schools, and are funded separately.

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