A new bill gets the nod from legislators.
The bill would require the state to pay at least 80 percent of the catastrophic aid for eligible special education costs that districts are entitled to through a longstanding formula. State money to support educating students with a high level of special needs has dropped to about 70 percent of what districts are entitled to in the past two years.
But while the N.H. House’s education committee unanimously backs House Bill 344, which goes before the full House on Wednesday, the finance committee recommended killing the bill.
Under the formula, districts should be reimbursed for 80 percent of a student’s special education costs that total more than 3.5 times the state average cost per pupil. Special education costs that exceed 10 times the state average cost per pupil should be fully reimbursed by the state.
For the 2013 fiscal year, the state average cost per pupil is $13,217.
Winchester taxpayers pay much much more per student than this ..
But when the state budget doesn’t have enough money to cover all catastrophic aid costs, the law allows the state to prorate, or adjust, the payments proportionately. And that’s been the case more often than not in recent years, local school district business administrators say.
Catastrophic aid funding is based on the preceding year’s costs. For the current school year, catastrophic aid for 1,052 students will total about $79.5 million statewide, according to the N.H. Department of Education. Of those costs, nearly $30 million is eligible to be reimbursed under the catastrophic aid formula. Yet the state will pay about 71.8 percent of those costs, or $21.5 million.
In 2011-12, the state paid 69 percent of the aid districts were entitled to, 77 percent in 2010-11 and 85 percent in 2009-10.
If the law had been in place this year, the state’s catastrophic aid payments would have increased by nearly $2.5 million.
In addition to the 80 percent requirement, the bill also would remove the provision that allows catastrophic aid be prorated.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Rick M. Ladd, R-Haverhill, said in a committee hearing last month that with shrinking funding from the state and payment based on the previous year, districts might be forced to borrow, transfer money from other budget accounts or rely on reserve funds to meet special education costs that the districts are legally mandated to provide.
The purpose of catastrophic aid is to pay special education costs for the state’s most vulnerable students, but each year that the state’s portion is decreased, the financial burden is increasingly transferred to the local taxpayer, he said.
Yet the finance committee does not support the bill, according to a report from last week, because the committee believes that catastrophic aid will be addressed in the House budget, which committee members are working on now before an early April deadline.
State Rep. Susan M. Ford, D-Easton, who spoke for the finance committee last week, said it’s not uncommon for the committee to rule out allocation bills if that money is already included in the budget. If a representative wants to increase that budget line, he or she would have to come to the finance committee and work on the issue, she said.
The House budget, which is still under work, lists catastrophic aid at $21,537,308 for 2014 and $23,537,308 for 2015.
N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Business Administrator John R. Harper said reliability for school districts is the important issue here. If the state can’t fund catastrophic aid under the current formula, then perhaps the formula should be changed into something the state can afford to pay in full, he said. That way, districts could count on a predictable number each year.
N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 provides top-level administration to the Chesterfield, Harrisville, Marlborough, Marlow, Keene, Nelson and Westmoreland districts.
One special education case could cost more than $300,000, and for a small district with a $2 million budget, that’d be disastrous without state help, said Timothy L. Ruehr, business administrator for the Unit 29 towns.
Being able to count on at least 80 percent of the catastrophic aid districts are entitled to would be significant, and it would reduce some of the guesswork involved in estimating what percentage the state will pay out each year, he said. But what Ruehr would really like to see is the state fully fund catastrophic aid.
“It’s frustrating because the law hasn’t changed, they just prorate and say, ‘This is what we can afford to give you.’ “
Kaitlin Mulhere can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @KMulhereKS.