SMMUSD HDQTRS — After nearly two years of work, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District officials and members of the Special Education District Advisory Committee completed their magnum opus — an analysis of the past decade of income and spending on special education, district wide.

The topic had previously been shrouded in mystery by inconsistent reporting structures that made it difficult to compare spending and revenues on everything from salaries to legal costs.

That opacity engendered mistrust within the community that could only see that the amount budgeted for special education was always greater than the amount spent.

“We in the special education community became concerned because several years running, the district budgeted a certain amount and seemed to be underspending,” said Claudia Landis, chair of SEDAC.

What resulted was an in-depth look at the sources of revenue from the state and federal government, the costs of the various pieces of the special ed program and how to improve reporting to make sure that the budget was accessible to the layman in the future.

“I think the process was extremely effective,” said Jan Maez, the district’s chief financial officer. “Members of SEDAC, who have had lots of questions in the past about data and information, have a much better understanding and comfort level that the information is complete and accurate, and not only that, but they can understand it.”

Half of special education is funded by state and federal sources. It gets the rest of its money from the school district’s general fund.

In fiscal year 2010-11, special ed accounted for $11,580,736, or roughly 10 percent, of general fund expenditures.

The charts show that the cost of special education has risen steadily over the previous 10 years, from a low of $16 million in the 2001-02 school year to $22.6 million in 2010-11.

The most expensive year was 2008-09, when the costs hit $22.8 million, primarily because of an uptick in legal costs and settlements, mostly surrounding conflicts between parents and the district over individual education programs, or IEPs.

As with many government organizations, much of the cost increases come from employees.

Salaries for certificated and classified employees jumped from $9.8 million in 2001-02 to $14.5 million in 2010-11, and the amount of money spent on benefits for those employees has more than doubled in that time.

Costs per student have also risen without pause over the past decade, except for one minor decrease in 2009-10.

Special ed students with IEPs cost the district an average of $10,553 in 2001-02, which increased to $17,038 this fiscal year.

Beyond the weakened buying power of the dollar, that increase is directly related to the cost of services needed by individual students.

“In general, the cost of education did go up,” said Board of Education President Jose Escarce. “In this particular case, it depends on the mix of students and the conditions that they have. Some need more expensive services.”

Escarce and board members Laurie Lieberman and Oscar de la Torre are liaisons to the Financial Oversight Committee, where the information was first presented.

“It’s an individual student-driven process,” Escarce continued. “The upward trend is reflective of general inflation and providing all sorts of education and services.”

The district contracts out many of those services, which include speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy, or any other service needed for a student with a disability that the school district can’t provide itself, Maez said.

An area of concern for members of SEDAC was the amount of money spent on litigation and settlements during the controversial period when parents and the district forged confidential agreements about student IEPs.

Legal settlement costs did increase steadily from fiscal year 2004-05, when settlements accounted for $269,000, to 2007-08 when it hit an all-time high of $832,000.

The amount spent on settlements in the most recent fiscal year reflects a change in culture and departure from business-as-usual, Escarce said.

“We have been striving over the last several years to improve everything about special education, including the culture of the program and how to deal with parents, parents’ needs and students’ needs,” Escarce said.

The numbers meant something different to Landis, who concluded that while many parents had assumed that the amount spent on litigation would be a deciding factor in budgeting for special education, it was a “red herring.”

The program’s major costs come from the teachers and staff that serve the students, which means that to improve the program, the district should focus on improving the instructional tools given to teachers, Landis said.

“It costs as much to pay a teacher to teach programs that aren’t useful as to pay a teacher to teach programs that are,” Landis said.

Members from all sides of the special education community were thrilled with the analysis, hailing it as a “Herculean effort” on the part of SEDAC and district staff.

“The goal is to have an informed membership about what is going on in special education to assuage anxiety,” said Theresa Harris, co-chair of the Santa Monica PTA’s special education committee. “They said this administration was going to be transparent, and they truly are.”

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