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Continued: Rising special ed cases are huge cost to Minnesota schools

“We realized we had to do a better job as a school district,” Mohs said. “We have to ensure that our system doesn’t contribute to the long-term racial achievement gap.”

Last fall, Mohs set a new goal, asking schools to include at least 75 percent of these troubled students in mainstream settings. One of the first schools to embrace the concept was Frost Lake Elementary, where second-grader Dominic Caliguire had been struggling with behavior issues since kindergarten. Last year, Dominic was allowed to mingle with regular students only during gym. This year, he is spending the majority of his day in a regular classroom.

It took some patience. At the beginning of the year, he was allowed two incidents per day before being hustled back to the room for disabled students. Then his teacher reduced it to one. Each time, he adjusted his behavior. Since his limit was reduced to zero, he has gone five weeks without a single meltdown.

“He is very proud of himself,” said his teacher, Amy Eelkema.

On a recent visit, Dominic kept up with 25 other students as they jogged around the gym, but he struggled with the jump rope. “Keep working on it, Dominic!” his teacher shouted.

Being called out for failure would have prompted him to shut down a year ago, Eelkema said. But he kept trying until he completed three revolutions. He grinned with delight at the accomplishment.

After Frost Lake moved most disabled children into regular classrooms, the number of behavior problems dropped by as much as 50 percent. That improvement is mirrored across the district, said special education director Liz Keenan, pointing to a 70 percent drop in suspensions.

By creating programs that target the district’s most challenging students, Mohs believes he can avoid sending large numbers of high-needs kids to the intermediate districts, where expenses are typically two to three times higher.

“It’s a significant challenge,” Mohs said. “We don’t have an endless pot of money.”

‘The one place you can’t cut’

Like most school districts in Minnesota, St. Paul doesn’t receive enough money from the state and federal government to pay for its special education costs.

In its case, the funding gap is about $36 million, or 37 percent of the $98 million it spent on special education last year.

In the past 10 years, district officials have gone to voters twice for help in dealing with that shortfall and other expenses. Both measures passed. Last year, voters approved $39 million for all-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes and new technology.

But directly or indirectly, almost all of that money will be used to offset the district’s special ed deficit, Mohs said.

Other districts have been less successful: School spending measures failed 44 percent of the time in the past decade, according to the state.

“I would say the funding gap for special education is a major cost pressure on school districts,” said Tom Melcher, director of school finance for the state education department. “They do their best to contain costs, but there are limits on what they can do.”

In Minneapolis, which is facing a $34 million funding gap for special education, administrators are considering $25 million in budget cuts.

“It isn’t just because of special education, but that is certainly contributing to the problem,’’ said Ann Casey, the district’s executive director of special ed. “Every year, the district has to do more with less.”

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