Special ed costs weigh down Detroit schools

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — Toni Mitchell thought her request was simple enough. Her special-needs son rides a school bus that is not equipped with seat belts or a special safety seat.

"He's only 5, and I didn't feel he was safe riding in a bus without the things I requested," said Mitchell, whose hearing-impaired son, Jurmel Mitchell Jr., attends Schulze Academy for Technology and Arts in Detroit Public Schools. "But they won't provide it because they said they don't have enough money to provide the seat to all students who need it."

The financial problems in the state's largest district mean students like Jurmel sometimes go without needed services, the families of special-needs children say. But the cost of educating several thousand special-needs students is itself a driver of DPS' deficit, which rose to $170 million in the last fiscal year.

DPS' special education costs far outpace the average Wayne County district.

DPS spends $2,962 per student on children with additional educational needs, rivaling the $3,937 spent per child on basic instruction, a Detroit News analysis of DPS spending data shows.

The average school district in Wayne County spends $3,927 per child on basic instruction and $1,139 on special education and additional instruction, state data show.

John Rakolta Jr., who co-chairs a coalition that's developing ideas for overhauling education delivery in Detroit, said DPS' size contributes to its high cost of accommodating special-needs students.

"There are many, many inefficiencies," said Rakolta, CEO of the Walbridge construction company. "The kids are spread out over 138 square miles, all in different schools getting different degrees of special education. There are seven-to-eight categories of this special education. When you look at it, you can see that's where huge cost overruns are occurring."

During the last school year, DPS "was required to subsidize special education operations by over $40 million" from its general fund, according to a memo written by William Aldridge, chief financial and administrative officer.

All told, the district expects to spend more than $143 million on special education this school year, he said.

Aldridge said DPS is reviewing special education operations "to determine what measures, if any, can be taken to control special education cost."

Providing cheaper and better special education is among the areas being studied by the coalition, which is preparing to make its recommendations Monday to Gov. Rick Snyder.

"You want to diagnose children early to provide proper support so they can move out of special education and reduce costs," said Tonya Allen, the Skillman Foundation CEO who's spearheading the coalition.

Just over 17 percent of DPS's 47,238 students receive some form of special-needs services, according to state figures. Statewide, just under 13 percent of students get special-needs services.

Funding for special education comes from several sources: state, federal and a millage through Wayne RESA, the county intermediate school district.

Michigan school superintendent Mike Flanagan said the state and Wayne RESA should bear more of Detroit's special education costs that are "making it difficult (for DPS) to dig out" of a deficit.

"I don't think the happenstance of having a resident with costly special needs should be the burden of the district they live in alone," Flanagan told The News.

Shortfalls must be covered from the general fund.

The district projects its revenue from the county special education millage will drop 6 percent this year, to $40.7 million. Funds from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are expected to shrink 10 percent to $12.9 million this year.

Craig Thiel, senior research associate at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan and author of "Financing Special Education: Analyses and Challenges," said districts like DPS have little flexibility in managing program costs.

Special education "has these mandated services from the state and federal government, and local districts have little latitude in meeting the requirements to provide services," Thiel said.

Toni Mitchell, meanwhile, says her child needs more services and help, not less.

"My son was being tutored after school, but the principal told me it was being discontinued because there wasn't enough money," she said. "That was really disappointing."


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Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.