Special education a growing challenge

Gloversville school voters were demanding in the spring of 2007, soundly rejecting a budget offering

Gloversville school voters were demanding in the spring of 2007, soundly rejecting a budget offering a 1.9 percent tax increase.

A revised budget, with no tax increase, was ultimately approved by voters.

But as that second election was pending last spring, school officials warned about the financial implications if — as often occurs over the summer — more families with children with special education needs moved into the district.

Sure enough, soon after school critics finished celebrating their successful campaign for no tax increase, school officials announced new special education enrollments that would contribute to a projected 2007-08 operating deficit of at least $300,000.

Most special education expenses are not reimbursable from the state until the following year, and a percentage of the costs is not eligible for state aid.

Last year, Gloversville’s immediate fiscal crisis was solved with $350,000 in special mid-year aid from the state.

But, the situation raised questions about the nature and inordinate size of Gloversville’s special education population, which constitutes about 20 percent — around 700 students — of the 3,200 member K-12 student body. The state average is 12.3 percent, according to the state Education Department.

Cities alluring to poor

It is no secret that Gloversville has been an economically stressed city since most of its leather industry disappeared decades ago.

It is also no secret, school officials agree, that while special education students come from all socio-economic levels, most of them come from disadvantaged families. Small cities such as Gloversville have not only an abundance of low-income apartments available, but they also offer close access to a variety of social services.

“The risk factors are very high for children born in poverty,” said College of Saint Rose Assistant Professor Dana H. Abbott, a Ph.D. whose expertise is in the fields of special education and literacy.

Abbott said studies have shown that a high percentage of special education students are children living in poverty. Children in disadvantaged families go to school “without having their basic needs met,” she said. At home, they are often not provided the materials they need to learn, including computers. Literacy problems burdened by inadequate vocabularies are common in such families, she said.

“Poverty is increasing,” Abbott said, adding: “We anticipate this is only going to get worse instead of better.”

Jack Whelan, superintendent of the Greater Johnstown School District, said there is no question that poverty and special education enrollments are linked.

Whelan agreed that disadvantaged families are drawn to the region’s small cities not only for the available housing but for easy access to social services.

In the Greater Amsterdam School District, where 16 percent of the 4,200 students are classified as in need of special education, another official also agreed with that assessment.

Assistant Gloversville Superintendent Roger Rooney said that given the socioeconomic conditions in the district, the focus of the Gloversville special education program is on finding a successful program for each child.

He said the large number of special education students in Gloversville is not a burden but a challenge.

“These people have a right to live, and they live where they can,” Rooney said.

“We have to dedicate ourselves, that as difficult as these problems are, we give them everything we can,” he said. And, he pointed out, services for special education students are state-mandated.

According to the 2000 census, the per capita income in Gloversville was $15,207, compared with $21,587 nationally and $17,910 in the city of Johnstown.

The city, which has a population of about 15,400 people, has an abundance of low-income housing.

Of the 7,540 housing units counted in the 2,000 census, 2,991 were apartments with a median monthly rent of $352. In neighboring Johnstown, a city of about 7,200 with 2,731 housing units, only 264 are rentals. The median rent in Johnstown that year was $408.

State Education Department statistics from 2005-06 identify 326 special education students in Johnstown’s 2,093 member student body — 15.6 percent.

Gloversville school board Vice President Perry Paul said there are a large number of inexpensive rental properties in the city. For disadvantaged families, he said, “it all goes to the bottom line — it’s relatively cheap to live in Gloversville, New York.”

Financial challenges

The official in charge of Gloversville’s special education program, Colleen Ulrich, director of student support services, said the number of special education students is rising in the district, climbing over the past five years from about 500 children to about 700.

Referring to last summer, when additional special education enrollment upset budget plans, she said, “it’s very hard to predict the future … who will be here in September.”

Predictions are made in the spring when the budget is prepared, said Ulrich. If after budget adoption one large family with children in need of special education moves in, “already, we know it’s going to be a difficult year.”

It is not uncommon, she said, to have a family move into the district and enroll four or five children, all requiring special education programming.

Making accurate budget predictions is difficult because many of the families with special education children move frequently, Ulrich said. In any given year, she said, there may be 100 special education students transferring into the district and 70 to 80 leaving. Often a number of those families leaving later return, she said.

The most recent statistics show that since July 1, 98 special education students moved into the district and 52 departed.

This year, Gloversville devoted about $8 million of its $46.8 million budget to special education.

The state aid formula for special education is set up to impose an unfunded mandate that may penalize districts with large special education populations, local school officials say.

Under state aid regulations, the district pays the first $24,000 in individual student costs and a year later receives state aid for 80 percent of any additional costs. If a student has severe or very special needs requiring placement or transportation to an outside school or provider, it can be costly — as much as $90,000 a year for some students, Ulrich said.

Gloversville administrators were unable to estimate how much of the costs Gloversville taxpayers are responsible for annually in the unaided portion of special education spending, but Whelan said the unaided cost in his district is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Stephanie M. Forsyth, director student services and special education in the Amsterdam district, said that the unaided cost in her district is probably at least $200,000.

Forsyth said the unaided expense does place some added burden on districts.

“What do you take out of your general budget to compensate for these mandated services, for which you’re not getting 100 percent reimbursement?” she said.

Census statistics on Amsterdam, a city of 18,233 people in 2000, show 3,893 apartments in a housing stock of 9,277 units. The median rent that year was $349.

John Rogers, director of financial assistance at Fulton County Department of Social Services, said Gloversville, as the county’s largest city, does have more available housing than surrounding communities.

Rogers said the agency cannot estimate the number of vacant apartments available in Gloversville but does keep a list of landlords willing to rent to DSS clients.

Depending on various factors, including the size of an apartment, a rental in Gloversville for a family of four may cost from $350 to $450, Rogers said.

Paul said it must be considered that Gloversville has changed significantly from its heyday 30 or 40 years ago, when it was still a prosperous leather manufacturing community. In that era, he said, the city’s housing stock was generally owner-occupied. That is no longer the case, he said.

Rooney is undaunted by Gloversville’s numbers, which he said are actually declining at the elementary level.

“I like working in this setting,” he said. “You’re doing a lot of good if you can help. If at the end of the day we can create an educational program [for a particular child], that’s a great thing to be proud of,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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