|4-14-14 Special Education Report, School Budget Elections|
NJ Spotlight - Fine Print: Report on Special Education Raises Challenges, Both New and Familiar ...Year-long study by NJ School Boards Association offers 20 recommendations for improving public education for students with disabilities ...“The report raises a number of good ideas that have been proposed in the past,” she said. “I guess it remains to be seen whether there is an appetite on the part of state government and the stakeholder community to tackle major reform of special education funding and service delivery.”
Philadelphia Inquirer - School budget elections disappearing in New Jersey
NJ Spotlight - Fine Print: Report on Special Education Raises Challenges, Both New and Familiar
John Mooney | April 14, 2014
Year-long study by NJ School Boards Association offers 20 recommendations for improving public education for students with disabilities
What it means: The report comes at a time when school districts face increasing pressure over programs and budgets. The tensions between general education and special education are, as ever, a byproduct of those strains.
The state recently reached a landmark settlement with disability advocates to put more emphasis – and enforcement -- of more inclusive special-education programs.
The school boards association’s report may provide a salve – and policy options -- to ease some of those tensions, although it may add to others.
Trend lines: Either way, the number of students classified with one disability or another has risen in the last five years, according to the report. From 2007 to 2012, the number of classifications rose nearly 5 percent, while overall school enrollment dropped 1 percent. About 202,000 New Jersey students were classified in 2012-13, representing about 15.5 percent of total enrollment.
New take on old issues: The report highlights a few new issues in the debate, and emphasizes such ideas as regionalizing some special-education services like child study teams. It also calls on school districts to serve struggling students earlier, before they need to be classified as having special needs.
Lost money: One long-running issue getting new attention is the estimated $10 million in federal Medicaid money lost for special-education services, largely due to the failure of school districts to complete required paperwork. The shortfall was cited in a state auditor’s report last year. The school board report recommends regional coordination in order to better comply with the Medicaid funding requirements.
Old issues, old positions: The report also reiterates some of the long-standing positions taken by school boards and school districts, including their support for shifting the legal burden of proof in the case of disputes to those lodging complaints – typically, the families of students. State law now places the burden of proof on school districts.
The task force: The study group was led by Gerald Vernotica, a former state education commissioner and Hunterdon County superintendent who is now an associate professor at Montclair State University. He led a group of nine school board members and administrators who consulted two dozen experts across the state and surveyed more than 100 districts.
A familiar goal: The report says the aim of its recommendations is to reduce costs of special education while improving services.
Good luck with that: Creation of the association’s task force coincided with the enactment of a law, signed by Gov. Chris Christie last March, that called for creation of a state task force to look at special-education needs and costs. Thirteen months later, the task force’s members have not even been appointed.
Reaction I: A sampling of advocates garnered mixed reactions to the report, all tempered by the fact that many of these issues are hardly new.
Diana Autin, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, raised a number of concerns, including the report’s language about “controlling classifications,” which she said runs counter to federal and state law.
Autin said the option of regionalizing child-study teams also ignores the knowledge that local districts have about their schools and students. And she said early intervention is already required, although it is not always adequately implemented by schools or monitored by the state.
Reaction II: “The title of the report, ‘Special Education: A Service, Not A Place,’ says a lot about shifting views of special education, and it echoes language that special-education advocates have been using for years,” said Brenda Considine, a longtime advocate and coordinator for the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform.
“The report raises a number of good ideas that have been proposed in the past,” she said. “I guess it remains to be seen whether there is an appetite on the part of state government and the stakeholder community to tackle major reform of special education funding and service delivery.”
Phihladelphia Inquirer - School budget elections disappearing in New Jersey
GEOFF MULVIHILL, The Associated Press
Posted: Saturday, April 12, 2014, 9:47 AM
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Just a few years ago, April school elections were a key date on New Jersey's political calendar, the time most of the state's voters had - but ignored - the chance to say yes or no to property tax increases.
Now, the only-in-New Jersey votes hardly exist.
Just 26 of the state's 585 school districts will hold elections April 23. That's 15 fewer than last year.
The change is a result of a law that, starting in 2012, allowed schools to save money and duck public outrage by moving school board elections to November and scrap votes on the tax levy. School budgets are the biggest component of New Jersey property tax bills, which average more than $8,000, the highest in the nation.
The conversion has been faster than expected, and it has come without much complaint.
Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said his group doesn't believe the school budgeting process has changed much because the direct vote on tax levies associated with school budgets is a thing of the past in most communities.
The budgets, he says, are still subject to a cap on how much administrative expenses can grow, still get reviewed by state education officials and are still subject to public hearing. And those that call for property tax increases of about 2 percent still must be voted on - unless the bigger increases are because of certain exceptions.
"For November, that budget does not go through the additional review by the voters," he said.
Through 2011, most school budgets in New Jersey required voter approval - a measure that other states reserve for big increases, capital projects or new programs.
Statewide, turnout was constantly low, with less than one-fifth of voters exercising their right, and most budgets were adopted as proposed by school boards.
But in 2010, Gov. Chris Christie, in his first year in office, campaigned for voters to reject budgets. That year, more than 25 percent of registered voters cast ballots and nearly 60 percent of communities rejected the budget plans.
Rejected budgets under the system are sent to town governing bodies for cuts, which are most often not that deep.
After the 2010 elections, lawmakers agreed to allow November school elections without the budget vote and imposed the 2 percent property tax growth cap.
Districts that switch have the full cost of holding the elections picked up by their county governments.
Belluscio says some of the districts that have declined to switch are concerned about seeing officially nonpartisan candidates on the same ballots with those running for other offices as Republicans or Democrats.
Nicole Schoener, business administrator for the Bridgeton Board of Education, the only district south of Trenton holding an April school election, said her board has a different reason for keeping the budget vote.
"The board feels that It's important to continue to permit the community to have input into the budget process and to have a vote on the budget process itself," Schoener said.
This year, the school districts have an additional benefit: Under a law adopted in January, they don't have to finalize their budgets until May 14.
Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill
Garden State Coalition of Schools