July 11, 2021, NJ. Com: A budget milestone for NJ’s special needs kids | Editorial https://www.nj.com/opinion/2021/07/a-budget-milestone-for-njs-special-needs-kids-editorial.html
It’s the wild card that every district worries about: One summer, after the budget had already been struck for the upcoming school year, a family moved into Glen Ridge with triplets who all had serious disabilities and needed intensive special education services. The small district had to make cuts to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Just one student with cerebral palsy or severe autism can cost more than $100,000 a year. “It can be a very difficult issue, a very polarizing issue, because the money has to come from somewhere,” said Betsy Ginsburg, who heads the Glen Ridge school board and the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents about 100 districts. We’ve come a long way from the dark days when kids with severe disabilities were warehoused; now, we’re spending a lot of money to give them the tools to live a full life. New Jersey should be proud of that. But the flip side is the cost, Ginsburg notes – to give children the care that they need, districts require more state support. “We never want children in general ed to be pitted against children in special ed,” agreed Sharon Levine of the Arc of New Jersey, a group that advocates for children with disabilities. “That never goes well for anybody.” The only answer is for the state to step in and help, to ensure these costs are shared, a principle that leaders of both parties support. By law, Trenton is supposed to cover 85 percent of the “extraordinary” special ed costs, defined as more than $40,000 per student in district or $55,000 at a private school. Still, the state has ignored that law and failed to pay its share come budget time, dipping below 50 percent in recent years. Now, finally, this year’s budget will fix that. Gov. Murphy proposed an additional $25 million in aid for these students, and lawmakers threw in $100 million on top of that – a request by Senate President Steve Sweeney. It was the largest single budget add by the Legislature. Sweeney and his Republican partner in this reform, Sen. Joe Pennacchio, say they won’t stop until this is 100 percent a state responsibility. That way, Sweeney said, “all school districts can do the right thing.” Without adequate state funding, districts are effectively punished for taking care of these kids in need. The most competent and caring districts become a magnet for these families. That’s a significant cost burden even for larger districts, said Christine Fano, a school board member in Montville and the mother of a student with severe autism. “People moved to Montville, they moved to Livingston, because they had a very good reputation of special services; and if a child could not be accommodated, they would find placement somewhere, which is nice, which is great – but everyone found out about it,” she said. Montville now spends millions of dollars a year sending special needs children to out-of-district private schools. In a recent year, 31 schools were listed, some of which enrolled four or five students. Two went to Cerebral Palsy of North Jersey, at $83,000 a year each, with another $40,000 for an aide, each. Three went to Spectrum360, a school for students with autism, at about $77,000 annually each, with $31,000 for each aide. And so on….