Special education funding commission

Pennsylvania's Special Education Funding Commission meets in Manheim Township on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, for its third public hearing. 

Lancaster County school and health officials on Monday expressed concerns with the cost of special education, an underfunded mandate, they say, that is increasing at an unsustainable rate.

They did so at Pennsylvania’s recently reconstituted special education funding commission’s third public hearing at the Manheim Township School District office.

The commission, originally formed in 2012 and called upon again this year to study the special education formula it recommended in 2013, is co-chaired by state Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh) and Rep. Curt Sonney (R-Erie).

Lancaster County lawmakers Sen. Scott Martin (R-Martic Township) and Rep. Michael Sturla (D-Lancaster) are members of the commission.

Here are four takeaways from what panelists said at the hearing.

School District of Lancaster

Matt Przywara, School District of Lancaster’s chief finance and operations officer, shared how local taxpayers are footing the bill for some of the district’s growing special education services.

For example, he said, the district allotted about $600,000 this year for two additional autistic support classes. The district’s special education subsidy from the state was only $425,000.

Including additional supports, the shortfall comes close to $750,000. Przywara said.

Lancaster has an annual budget of about $230 million.

“It is evident that the state funding formula is not keeping pace with the needs of our students,” he said.

Penn Manor

Theresa Kreider, Penn Manor’s director of student support services, used examples of three actual students, using fake names, to describe the growing complexities —and costs — of special education services.

The three students, who receive various supports for autism and other special needs, alone cost the district $217,000. In 2008-09 school year, she added, Penn Manor had only one student whose costs exceeded $75,000. Now, it has 12.

Manheim Township

At Manheim Township, special education offerings have grown “substantially” over the years, chief operating officer Donna Robbins said.

Since 2014-15, Robbins said, the district’s special education expenditures have increased by $3.1 million, or 37%. The state has only chipped in an additional $137,000, or 6%, she said.

“This growing gap in funding increases our district budget, ultimately impacting our local taxpayers,” she said.

Trauma-informed teaching

Perhaps one important piece of the special education puzzle is understanding adverse childhood experiences and finding ways to implement trauma-informed teaching in schools, a panel of health officials suggested.

The panel shared research that shows childhood trauma can affect student performance, behavior and attendance, lead to substance abuse and health problems such as heart disease and asthma.

Using a trauma-informed approach, they said, can address and prevent the root causes of these issues.

“We can no longer afford to leave this up to chance,” said Alice Yoder, executive director of community health with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. “We need to be intentional about using our limited resources on the evidence-based programs we know to be effective in communities and schools.”