With students and teachers back in the classroom, a tumultuous summer for public education has given way to relative calm in local school districts — for now.

The Kelso School District passed its $62 million budget for the new school year on Aug. 14 and the Longview School District followed suit with an $87 million budget two weeks later. Teachers in both districts won raises this year after both school boards approved new collective bargaining agreements.

But looking forward, there’s still a high level of uncertainty that’s clouding one area in particular: special education.

As part of lawmakers’ solution to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, the Legislature increased the amount of money it gives local districts for children with special needs.

In that decision, justices ruled that the state must fully fund the cost of basic education and stop forcing districts to rely on local property taxes for basic expenses such as teacher salaries.

Under Washington law, special education is basic education. However, the Legislature’s last-minute McCleary fix — unveiled and passed in less than a day — still does not completely reimburse every district’s actual special education costs.

Lawmakers increased the cap on state funding for special education from 12.7 percent of a district’s student population to 13.5 percent. That means if more than 13.5 percent of a district’s enrolled students have a learning disability, the district has to shoulder those costs.

And the price of special education has spiked in recent years as research has allowed educators to identify more students with special learning needs.

That could be a major problem going forward because the state’s new public education funding plan hinges on a complicated “levy swap,” which increases state property taxes while capping local property taxes.

In the past, school districts have relied on local levy dollars to make up for the widening shortfall between state and federal dollars and the true cost of special education.

“We've just seen our costs go through the roof with special education in the last couple years,” said Scott Westlund, executive director of business and operations for the Kelso School District. “If that continues to grow and we have to continue to use local funds to do that, it's not going to be sustainable,” he said.

Increasing costs

Part of the reason why special education costs have risen so much over the past several years is due to an increase in the number of children with complex needs.

According to Longview Special Education Director Elizabeth West, the number of children with behavioral and mental health needs has increased dramatically in relation to the number of children with learning disabilities.

“We're seeing a lot more complex children and those are the children that have increased funding needs,” she said.

Even with stable enrollment, the Kelso School District hired 10 more special education staff this year to meet its students’ special education needs, Westlund said.

The adoption of assistive technology and learning devices for students with special needs has also led to an increase in costs, West said.

While the state boosted its special education allocation to the district by roughly $800,000 for the 2017-2018 year, Kelso’s special education expenses increased by $1.2 million.

Overall, the district’s special education costs have shot up 33 percent from two years ago.

In Longview, the district will get roughly $900,000 this year in additional special education funding from the state while seeing its costs increase by nearly $2 million compared to last year.

Longview’s special education costs have increased nearly 25 percent since the 2015-2016 school year.

Both districts also receive some federal money for special education, but that funding has remained relatively flat over the past decade.

“Our expenditures far exceed our revenues, both state and federal, so locally it's being absorbed by our local tax dollars,” said Patti Bowen, business and operations manager for the Longview School District.

Adding to the uncertainty, lawmakers placed new restrictions on how districts can use money from local school levies. Under the McCleary fix, local levies can only be used for "enrichment" purposes but the Legislature has yet to define what qualifies as enrichment. Some districts have interpreted the new education funding law to mean that local levy dollars can’t go toward special education.

Westlund said he’s under the impression that local dollars can pay for special education. But that point could be moot because lawmakers also capped local property taxes at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value as part of the McCleary deal.

“There is a restriction on the amount that we can actually go out and ask for, so yeah that could have a severe limitation upon our ability to meet those needs especially in the special education area,” he said. “That's why I think if we continue to grow it's not sustainable given the current tax structure.”

McCleary implications

Elected leaders seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief after passing their McCleary fix at the end of a third special legislative session.

But the state Supreme Court — which has retained jurisdiction over the case and held the Legislature in contempt for the past two years for failing to deliver a timely solution — still has to weigh in.

The Legislature recently submitted a report to the court arguing that it has met its constitutional obligation to guarantee every child in Washington the right to a quality public education.

In a number of friend of the court briefs filed on Wednesday, though, advocacy groups argue that the Legislature has failed its duty and specifically reference a lack of special education funding as one of the reasons.

The original plaintiff in the McCleary decision filed a brief arguing that the Legislature acknowledges that it has failed to fully fund special education by setting a 13.5 percent cap on the number of students it will fund. (For context, 16.7 of students in the Longview School District have special education needs.)

Another brief filed by the left-leaning Washington Budget and Policy Center argues that “the McCleary fix does not fund the actual costs of the basic education districts are mandated to provide, even while removing the local levy option to fill in those holes.”

Justices are expected to decide sometime this month whether to accept the state’s education funding plan or instruct lawmakers to tear it up and start over.

With administrators and advocacy groups crying foul, special education could be a decisive factor.

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