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Iowa: Agencies may have to limit special ed services due to budget cuts

May 23, 2023, KCCI TV Des Moines, IA: 'These kids need a voice': Parents worry about budget cuts to agencies helping special needs kids
Agencies that provide special education services say ongoing budget cuts will reduce what resources they can provide. Some parents of kids with special needs worry that it will have a 'devastating' impact on their children's future.

Kelly Garrison Simmons remembers the moment her daughter Olivia was diagnosed with autism. The evaluation was provided by an Area Education Agency (AEA) employee.

She remembers the confusion, frustration and loneliness that filled daily life. And she remembers the AEA employees who quickly became like family while providing in-home speech and occupational therapy along with emotional support and advice. …

When Garrison Simmons heard earlier this month that state lawmakers agreed to cut additional funding from the agencies that provide those special education services, she burst into tears.

"My family wouldn't even have made it to this point without them," Garrison Simmons said. "AEA is literally the first lifeline for these kids to get identified and get them going in their services that they need so they have even a chance of doing any type of functioning or catching up to their peers."

Iowa has nine AEAs that provide special education services to public and private school students across the state. The agencies also help families who have infants and toddlers with special needs.

State lawmakers agreed months ago to increase public education funding by 3%, which will boost how much state aid school districts and AEAs get for each student enrolled in public school.

Despite that increase, Republican lawmakers also agreed to reduce state funding to the agencies by nearly $30 million next year. They made that change while finalizing the state budget during the last week of the session.

It is the largest of ongoing budget cuts that AEAs have faced for decades.

Lawmakers are required each year to cut AEA funding by roughly $7.5 million. Jon Sheldahl, Chief Administrator for the Heartland Area Education Agency, says lawmakers have also approved an additional $15 million cut for the past several years.

But Sheldahl says agencies were shocked when Republican lawmakers approved a $22 million budget cut this year instead….

Sheldahl says the Heartland AEA, which provides special education services to schools, students and families in Central Iowa, has already locked in to staffing commitments for this coming year. The cut won't impact staffing for this school year, but they'll have to dip into savings to pay for staff they've already hired.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has yet to sign the funding changes into law. She has until June 2 to sign or veto them, but Reynolds told reporters earlier this month she doesn't "anticipate any delay in the services [AEAs] provide to school districts."…

"I truly don't believe, if we move forward and sign the bill, that that will impact their ability to provide the services at the local level," Reynolds said. "We appreciate what they do, but we don't anticipate any delay."

But Sheldahl says the cuts will ultimately delay the services his agency provides.

"When you hear someone say that the cuts don't matter, or it's not going to impact service, it just simply isn't correct," Sheldahl said. "If that $5 million cut remains permanent next year, I can assure you that we will not be able to maintain the workforce that we have right now because we'll have to make reductions-- we're definitely impacting service to kids."

Sheldahl says students who get direct services, including speech, physical or occupational therapy, could get them less often.

"It'll impact our ability to add the staff that we need to keep up with the growing population," Sheldahl said. "It will decrease the frequency with which many students receive services, how often [and] for how long."

Parents of children with special needs worry about what a future with fewer services would look like. That includes Mitchellville mom Amanda Tollari, whose 8-year-old daughter Natalia has special needs….

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