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Green Bay, WI: $33M transferred from reg. ed. to SPED; enrollment down, SPED numbers up

Nov 5. 2021, Green Bay (WI) Press Times: Legislators’ actions on special education are inexcusable (EDITORIAL)

The recently approved Green Bay School District budget includes a transfer of more than $33 million from the general fund to cover special education costs.

Why this happens is inexcusable and must stop. We recently completed our seven-story series on special education in Wisconsin through the NEW News Lab, a partnership of six newsrooms covering issues important to the region, supported through a grant from Microsoft. This seven-part series comes on the heels of a four-part series we did earlier this year on education funding as a whole across the state, and why we are seeing more and more school referendums on local ballots.

Here’s the basics from more than 35,000 words of reporting: School districts receive funding from the state on a per-pupil amount, which is different in every district, based on spending levels in 1992.

These amounts are doled out for general education students and students with no physical or mental disabilities. Students with physical or mental disabilities are considered special education, and districts are legally required to provide them with a fair and appropriate education. … By law, districts cannot go below the funding they allocated for special education the previous year, known as maintenance of effort, which makes them hesitant to spend a higher amount in perpetuity that can never be decreased. To make up the gap, which is around $1 billion in Wisconsin, districts transfer funds for general education to cover special education.

This is how Green Bay will end up moving $63 million in two years. If districts were adequately reimbursed in the first place, none of this would happen. To compound matters, public school enrollment across Wisconsin is dropping, and schools rely on a funding formula based on enrollment. You might think with a decrease in students in general, there would be a corresponding decrease in special education students. You would be wrong. As the total number of students dropped in Wisconsin over the past decade, the percentage of students with an IEP actually increased. This means a higher percentage of kids in public schools now require specialized services mandated by the federal government. Green Bay saw an increase of 80 students in its special education program this year. … However, because of the low 30% reimbursement, those dollars must be spent on special education, which is a major part of why Green Bay residents will likely see a referendum in April. When districts are required to transfer dollars away from general education to support special education, the general fund is oftentimes left in a lurch, and to get out of the lurch, schools often go to referendum, an expensive and time-consuming process that comes back to hurt the taxpayer. … For far too long, the political party in power in Wisconsin has been using schools and students, the largest economic driver we have as a society, as bargaining chips. … The state had more than enough funds available when it wrote the most recent budget, because the Wisconsin Policy Forum projected an extra $4.4 billion in state collections through June 2023. After the most recent budget, there is now $2.6 billion that’s currently not budgeted for anything….


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