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

Still, Minneapolis paid $14.7 million to other districts for special education services last year, including $3.9 million to District 287 to cover the costs of 168 disabled students. Casey said Minneapolis made just 10 of those referrals to District 287.

“We don’t even have an opportunity to weigh in on whether we could serve these students,” Casey said.

Earlier this year, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed increasing special education funding by $62.4 million per year, or enough to cut the annual deficit by about 10 percent.

For many superintendents, the most frustrating federal rule is one that prohibits schools from reducing special education costs unless they can document enrollment declines or other special factors.

Ed Saxton, superintendent of the St. Francis school district in the north metro, estimated his district could save as much as $500,000 by replacing an older communications device with iPads. But he said the rules make it almost impossible to switch.

“Over the past 10 years, we’ve cut art and music in elementary. We’ve cut activity buses. Our class sizes are higher than they used to be. … The one place you can’t cut is special education,” Saxton said. “Why aren’t we looking at the most efficient ways of servicing our kids with the highest needs? It doesn’t make any sense the way we do it.”

No guarantees

One of the most expensive students in Minnesota landed in the special education wing of John Glenn Middle School when he was 8 years old.
The boy, who was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, could not speak or communicate with even the most rudimentary symbols, according to District 916 principal Mollie Wise, who helped design the boy’s instructional program.
At his previous school, he had been disrobing every day and urinating or defecating in class. When staff members tried to remove him, he would become violent, hitting or biting anyone who got too close.

“Everyone said this might be the hardest student you’ll ever work with,” Wise said.

District 916 decided to build him his own classroom, one in which his aggression could be contained. It cost $88,000, and is the most expensive of the eight rooms the district has built for individual students in the past five  years. The district declined to identify the boy for privacy reasons.

“It’s a safe, simplified environment,” said Naidicz, 916’s special ed director.

At first, the boy spent about three hours per day in the room with his teacher and an assistant. His main task was to identify simple icons and photos in a red plastic book, such as cookies, pizza and Clifford the Big Red Dog. He would study for 15 minutes at a time and then take a break. Eventually, he learned more than 50 symbols. Two of the most important: “I want” and “I don’t want.”

By the fall of 2011, the boy had learned how to communicate and was transferred to another District 916 school, where he eventually shared a classroom with five other students. The boy managed to avoid a major incident until the end of the year, when he got upset because someone wouldn’t share food with him on the playground, said his teacher, Kayna Plaisted. The boy injured a staff member’s hand, requiring a cast.

To Plaisted, however, even the smallest step is a victory, such as the day she saw him crying during a chaotic day in her classroom.

“It’s kind of a weird situation, to see him cry instead of act out for attention,” Plaisted said. “It’s a different world. It shows he cares. He feels so much inside. He just has not had a way to say it.”
This year, the boy is back in a quieter class with four other students. He still has his own full-time assistant. District officials are not sure if he will ever be able to function in a regular classroom. • 612-673-4132

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