Rising special ed cases are huge cost to Minnesota schools

Room 112 is walled off from the rest of a Maplewood public school by an ugly row of concrete blocks.

Its wooden entrance was replaced with a steel door, and the carpet and plumbing fixtures removed, all so its sole occupant — an 8-year-old boy prone to attacking teachers and classmates — would have nothing to destroy during his daily outbursts. Even his books and toys were kept on a cart that could be wheeled away at a moment’s notice.

Every school day, the boy, who has autism and doesn’t speak, came to the barren cell built only for him. Two adults spent all their time teaching him to communicate.

The price? $153,000 for a year of instruction, nearly 20 times what’s spent on a student without special needs. “The costs are staggering,” said Connie Hayes, superintendent of the public school district that built the classroom.

A decade ago, the boy would have been institutionalized. Today, he’s sent to public school. His education in Room 112 tells a larger story of a growing predicament confronting schools across Minnesota.

A sharp rise in students diagnosed with major disabilities is forcing many schools to take difficult and at times divisive new steps to tailor classrooms to the disabled students’ needs, no matter how expensive that gets.

Even as overall school enrollment declined over the past decade, the number of disabled students rose 14 percent, reaching 128,000. That includes a fivefold increase in students with autism.

Many of the state’s most psychologically troubled students also are being sent to school settings for the first time as mental health programs that once served them have been cut back or eliminated.

By law, state and federal budgets are supposed to cover about 90 percent of the cost of educating students with special needs.

But they are falling short, shifting much of the cost to local school districts. Spending on special education is soaring — it has risen 70 percent in Minnesota over the past decade to $1.8 billion this school year.

Reeling from that pressure, some schools say they have no choice but to curtail other classroom programs, such as art and music. Others are turning desperately to voters for money.

To some educators, the costs, while tough to bear, are both necessary and right.

“It’s a good investment,” Hayes said. “Think about the cost to our community if we didn’t make an investment like that. That’s really the essence of why we moved handicapped individuals out of institutions back in the ’70s.”

But other school officials say the special education system is broken, saddling schools with chronic money shortages and at times dangerous threats to teachers being asked to help students whose disabilities can lead to violent outbursts.

“We are working with a system that is totally irrational,” said attorney Jerry Von Korff, a longtime member of the St. Cloud school board.

Matt Mohs, interim chief academic officer in St. Paul, which has the largest special education population of any school district in the state, said spending is out of control.

“You start to wonder: What’s the limit?” he asked. “Could certain districts face bankruptcy over the needs of a small number of students?”

180-degree turn

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