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Norwin superintendent pushes for special education funding reform

| Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Norwin Superintendent William Kerr hopes he, and a group of educators from across the state, can help reform special education funding in Pennsylvania.

Kerr and three other educators presented a plan for funding special education to several local legislators, including state Rep. George Dunbar (R-56) and state Sen. Kim Ward (R-39) as the final part of a one-year fellowship at the Pennsylvania Education Policy and Leadership Center.

“The fellowship is a year-long professional development experience, which gave me a chance to network with educators in both higher and basic education and some nonprofit leaders,” Kerr said. “It reinforced that strong leadership is essential for advocating for fair and equitable resources in public education.”

Kerr said his group, which included Yough superintendent Janet Sardon, Eric Holtzman, business director for the Tuscarora School District, and Brent Kessler, business manager for Central York School District, chose to address special education funding.

The state has provided $1 billion for special education each year, for the last five years, Kerr said. His group estimated the state funding covers about 46 percent of district's special education funding needs, leaving local taxpayers to foot 54 percent of the bill.

It costs about $1,947 to educate one special education student, which is about 2.3 times more than it costs to educate a non-special education student, he added.

“Local district expenditures far exceed the revenues from the state and federal government for the operation of programs and services for students with disabilities,” Kerr said.

Kerr's group suggested state officials increase special education funding to meet the rate of inflation, and create a contingency fund, which would increase based on need.

They also suggested removing the special education exception under Act 1, which allows districts to raise taxes above the Department of Education's millage index.

The Department of Education's millage index limits how much a district can raise the tax rate each year without having to get permission via a judge or voter referendum. The special education exception allows districts to exceed the millage index to help cover special education increases, according to the Pennsylvania State Education Association website.

Kerr said the goal is not to raise taxes above the index for special education programs. Instead, they proposed to use the district's index rate to help determine its increase in state funding for special education programming, and provide a predictable annual funding increase, he said.

Although the group presented its suggestions to members of the state House, Kerr said the House Special Education Funding Commission is working on a revised special education funding formula.

“State funding for special education is currently distributed based on an estimate that the average daily enrollment of each district includes 16 percent of students with special education needs,” state Rep. Bernie O'Neill (R-29) wrote in a memorandum attached to House Bill 704, which established the commission.

“These funds can be partially augmented by the contingency fund for students with extraordinary expenses; however, there is nothing in place to assist schools that continually struggle with higher special education costs.”

The commission plans to establish a formula to distribute state funding for special education based upon individual district needs, wrote O'Neill, the bill's prime sponsor.

Although Kerr and his group have not been called upon, he said he would be willing to present his findings to the House, if necessary.

“We're anxious to see what the commission will present,” Kerr said.

Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8626, or bpedersen@tribweb.com.

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