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Schools' CFO differs about allotting special-education funds

YourArlington asked Diane Johnson, the schools’ chief financial officer, about the argument presented by Charles Foskett, the Finance Committee vice chair, at the March 25 Fincom meeting about how the administration handles special- and regular-education funds.

School budget logo"If, over time, we find that 7% is not the right number, it should certainly be re-examined."-- Diane Johnson, schools' chief financial officer

Foskett had said he would move at Town Meeting to cut $1 million from the proposed fiscal 2016 school budget, but he has since said he would not do that. 

His lengthy argument is outlined here >>

"I think the main point of contention about the 7% annual growth in Special Education funding is what happens in years when Special Education costs rise less than 7%," she wrote in an email Wednesday, April 8. "I think everyone agrees that in years when our Special Education costs grow more than 7%, the School Department must take funding away from General Education to fund the difference.

"Mr. Foskett feels that the Town should reduce its funding contribution down to the actual growth of special education in good years (when costs rise less than 7%) but the School Department should eat the overage in bad years (when costs rise more than 7%)."

"Others, including myself, feel that we should receive the 7% in good years and bad, so that we can restore General Education after it has taken the hit to cover special education in a prior year.

"If, over time, we find that 7% is not the right number, it should certainly be reexamined. 7% was simply closest to the average growth over time of Special Education expenses at the time it was started" following the 2011 override.

10-year breakdown

Johnson was also asked about a 10-year breakdown on special-ed funds that two Fincom members said March 25 the administration has not provided.

"I did provide information about special-education special education to the Finance Committee," she wrote.

"There is a multiyear report going back to 2005 that provides total amounts, but doesn't provide an accurate view of different types of spending, because circuit breaker and other special education grants are listed on one line, and do not indicate if the funds are used for in-district or out-of-district expenses.

"This report was developed when I arrived here [in 2009]. I needed to retrieve data from DESE [the state Department of Elementary & Secondary Education] for those years before I was here, and DESE doesn't think about special education the way we do in Arlington.

"I have also provided more detailed expense information from FY11 through FY15, which allow a clearer look at different types of spending without excluding important sources of funding from outside Arlington, namely circuit breaker and grants."

She provided a modified version of the spreadsheet that was requested by the Fincom, and you can see it here >> 

This chart has line-item detail removed, leaving the annual total amounts of special-education expenses.

She wrote: "You can see that bad years can be really bad."

Argument would push School Department backward

She wrote that since the town started increasing funding for special and general education separately in fiscal 2012, the differential amount through this year -- using current projections to finish fiscal 2015 -- shows that general education is down $100,062 because of the need to cover special-education cost growth.

"Everyone values a sustainable financial arrangement that allows us to meet our financial obligations to our children with special needs," she wrote.

"Through much negotiation, we have decided on the 7% arrangement, and it is working well. Our per pupil expenditures are below the average for the state, and for the Town Manager's 12 comparable communities.

"I do not believe that we are overspending. I do believe that Mr. Foskett is wrong to insist that the School Department receive less funding when special-education costs grow less than 7 percent, and not enough funding when special-education costs grow more than 7 percent.

"If his belief on this topic carries the day at Town Meeting, it will push the School Department backward by forcing us to cut into general education to support special education.

This story was published Monday, April 13, 2015.

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