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SFUSD could see relief on budget-straining special education costs

Districts across the state are lobbying Gov. Gavin Newsom and California legislators to boost funding rates for special education by $1 billion. | Sophie Bearman

Although special education costs have significantly increased in recent years, funding from the state and federal governments has generally stagnated. According to a recent city report, this has left cities like San Francisco to shoulder the mounting costs from other sources. 

A Budget and Legislative Analyst (BLA) report issued in March found that San Francisco Unified School District’s special education budget has grown by 35 percent in the four-year period between fiscal years 2016-17 and 2020-21—but state and federal funding increased by just six percent. That’s left the district to cover two-thirds of the increase from its unrestricted general fund, as officials at a Board of Supervisors youth committee hearing outlined on Friday.

SFUSD’s structural deficit would have been about $45 million less if state and federal revenue kept up with costs, Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Operations Myong Leigh estimated. The district is working to implement a balancing plan to address an immediate $125 million deficit for the upcoming school year.

“The government has starved local districts,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who called for the report and hearing at the Youth, Young Adult and Families Committee. “It’s just wrong, and it impacts the entire district, every kid and teacher.”

Under a 1975 federal law, public schools are legally required to provide appropriate education to children with disabilities. The federal government has also committed to paying up to 40 percent of special education costs, but the promise consistently goes unfulfilled, advocates repeatedly note. In SFUSD’s fiscal year 2018-19, it fell short of that promise by $36.7 million, according to the BLA report.

At $160 million, special education makes up about 16 percent of the district’s budget and 13 percent of student enrollment, according to a staff report.

Special education advocates and SFUSD staff have increasingly raised the issue as the district contends with its budget crisis and schools generally struggle during a pandemic. But with this new data, there is an opportunity and resolve to close the gap, officials said.

Districts across the state are lobbying Gov. Gavin Newsom and California legislators to boost funding rates for special education by $1 billion, about double what the governor has currently proposed in light of a massive budget surplus. If successful, SFUSD could receive an estimated $10.5 million.

SFUSD Chief of Special Education Jean Robertson was quick to point out that money is not the only solution needed to improve special education for the city’s students. 

And when asked by Supervisor Myrna Melgar whether the additional funding would improve services or fill the budget gap, Robertston said, “That’s the question of the day.

“The money is going to be fantastic, but we absolutely have a human resources problem,” Robertson said. “This great resignation has actually been happening for a long time for special education teachers. We burn out easily, it’s hard to train, it’s hard to retain.” 

Robertson added that special education teachers also simply need more time to do their jobs and address the mountains of paperwork that come with students with individualized learning plans (IEPs). Contrary to popular belief, students with IEPs are in general education classrooms and are evaluated to determine which services might best help them learn. 

Ronen said she would work on a resolution to lobby for doubling of proposed special education funding to $1 billion, as a start. Newsom is expected to unveil his revised proposed budget in mid-May. 

“This is just the beginning of this work,” Ronen said. “We’re natural allies for kids in this area and we’re not going to stop.”

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