State eyes changes to special ed funding

-A A +A
By Tris DeRoma

At a recent Los Alamos Board of Education meeting, officials from the school district revealed the state is considering making a major change to how it funds special education and the Gifted and Talented Education Program. According to the way the state funds special education, GATE is considered a part of special education.
According to LAPS’ Chief Financial Officer John Wolfe, the state is particularly looking at changing over to census-based funding for special education.

After the meeting, Wolfe told the Los Alamos Monitor that this is only a recommendation and that so far, no legislation has resulted from the report. He said he and other school officials will be watching closely to see whether or not the state legislature acts on the recommendations, which were presented in a report by the Legislative Finance Committee.

If that were to happen Wolfe said the district could stand to lose $270,000 in special education funding. “This would have a negative impact on those districts that would exceed the census right now,” he said at the meeting.

According to the most recent figures Wolfe quoted at the meeting, the LFC is recommending to fund all districts at a level of 13.8 percent. If a district’s special education population is at 12 percent, then a district gains funding, if it is above the 13.8 percent number, they lose funding. Los Alamos’ special education student population makes up 16 percent of the district’s total population.

However, to put things in perspective, Wolfe said, other districts in the state would stand to lose much more. Albuquerque, he said, would lose about $8.5 million.

“It would be a huge hit to them as well as a variety of districts in between,” he said.

And, he added, since New Mexico classifies gifted students within its special education formula, the Los Alamos Public School District’s Gifted and Talented Education Program could be affected as well.

At the time of his report to the board, Wolfe said there were no figures available for how much the Los Alamos GATE program would lose, but he did have the general, statewide total.

“Statewide, the funding for GATE is currently $34.9 million. If you went to a 5 percent cap on census-based funding, that would drop to $27.9 million.

Teachers at the school board meeting were astounded by the proposed cuts.

“I’m shocked, just shocked,” said Mountain Elementary Special Ed teacher Ellen Mills. “It bothers me that they would set what I would see as an arbitrary number...To set a number to say ‘this is it,’ it really isn’t about the students need,” she said.

School administrator Judy Pinkney echoed Mills’ reaction. “They again are looking at numbers, and not at children and the severity of their needs,” she said.

Wolfe said there was a silver lining in this potentially dark cloud, and that is, the municipalities that stand to lose the most tend to have large populations and so more representation in the legislature.

“If we are on this list, we are going to end up with some very powerful allies, if (the state) ultimately ends up with something along these lines.”

Board President Jim Hall stated his belief that this new plan of the state’s will not happen, given the arbitrariness of the plan. “My view is that the census basis for special ed is DOA, dead on arrival. It’s not going to happen.”

He pointed to a statement in the report that said: “The current unit weight likely overestimates the true cost of educating gifted students.”

“You talk about having a target on your back; our gifted program will have a target on its back.”