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Special needs students, costs increase while Nevada County schools try to make do



Revenue projections from 2018-19 to 2019-20

Amount increased in special education funding:

Yuba River Charter School: $53,660

County Court and Community Schools: $13,984

Pleasant Ridge School District: $176,818

Nevada County Special Education Services: $205,943

Forest Charter School: $73,270

Nevada City School of the Arts: $42,197

Penn Valley School District: $53,265

Bitney College Prep: $5,156

Nevada City School District: $15,084

Amount decreased in special education funding:

Twin Ridges Home Study: $21,671

Clear Creek School District: $36,771

Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning-Nevada Joint Union High School District: $19,473

Nevada Union High School: $524,989

Chicago Park School District: $12,810

Sierra Montessori Academy: $2,956

Twin Ridges School District: $2,684

Union Hill School District: $4,924

Grass Valley School District: $11,296

Nevada Union’s Step program is situated in a long, enclosed hallway.

Classrooms line each side, and include training for functional life skills. The 18- to 22-year-old students in these classes fall under the “moderate to severe” special needs category.

These spaces are meant to be made easier for students — the fluorescent lights hanging overhead, for example, are covered to reduce tension on the eyes.

“Back in the day, we use to not be responsible for students once they got a certificate of completion,” said Sean Manchester, former director of special education and pupil services at the Nevada Joint Union High School District, earlier this year. (Manchester died in an April kayaking incident.) “Now we’re responsible for students until they are 22.”

Half of Nevada Union High School’s “D Wing” is dedicated to “mild to moderate” special needs students. Generally, the school’s nurses spend 70% to 80% of their time with Individualized Education Program (IEP) students, or those with special needs, said Manchester.

But despite Nevada Union’s extensive resources, the school’s administrators are nervous about special education funding — something that also concerns county and state officials.

“It’s not just here in Nevada County that we’re underfunded, it’s statewide,” said Darlene Waddle, chief business official with the county office of education. “Special education costs have been rising faster than the revenue sources have been rising over the years. So it’s become a bigger problem recently than ever before.”

Next to pensions, special needs costs pose a significant problem for California schools.


In May 2018, a council of superintendents voted to change how special needs money is allocated through the California Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPA) under Assembly Bill 602. As such, Nevada Union High School will lose somewhere between $500,000 and $550,000 between last year and this year, according to Nevada County Superintendent of Schools documentation. Districts like Clear Creek and Twin Ridges are projected losses in the thousands, but other districts, like Pleasant Ridge and Yuba River Charter, are anticipated to net more funding.

Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett McFadden said the transition is particularly difficult for Nevada Union High School, where services to special needs students include intravenous feedings, physical and occupational therapists, staff trained to handle medical emergencies and emotional disturbances. It’s a space where special needs students ranging from “mild to moderate” and “moderate to severe” are served — which he said is rare for a school district.

While the district is still providing numerous resources — schools are mandated to provide free, appropriate education — the costs associated with special education are “going up astronomically,” said McFadden. (That, he said, is added to the increasing costs of construction projects and pensions.)

Today, 14% of district students qualify for special needs services. According to Manchester, that number was 11% a few years ago.

State data elucidates the trend: in 2001, about 1 in 50 California students qualified for special education. In 2016 that number rose to 1 in 8.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Janet Horowitz, the district’s current director of pupil services.

Eli Gallup, county office associate superintendent and SELPA director, said the rise in special needs students in the district is part of a greater trend of parents identifying and categorizing their children’s behavior to provide them optimal care.

“(There’s) greater awareness of students with disabilities,” said Gallup.


County special education services are responsible for disabled children from birth to 3 years old. After that, school districts take on the responsibility.

Prior to 2018, SELPA money was inequitably distributed, said Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay. Through no fault of the Nevada Joint Union High School District, it was receiving more than its fair share, said Lay.

Dan Zeisler, superintendent at Chicago Park and Clear Creek school districts, agreed. To make things more fair, money was shifted from prioritizing a student population to focusing on the staffing that supports such a population.

Part of the issue with budgeting in general, Lay said, is schools don’t know what the student population will be before the beginning of the year when the budget is determined.

“We can’t really project,” Zeisler said. “We make conservative estimates.”


Based on 2019-20 AB 602 projections, compared with the previous year, the Twin Ridges school district is expected to lose $21,671; Clear Creek about $36,000; and Chicago Park about $13,000. Conversely, Yuba River Charter is expected to gain about $53,000; Pleasant Ridge about $177,000; and Forest Charter School about $73,000, according to county documents.

“I’m not happy about it, but it’s a step in the right direction in terms of equity for everybody. We still do whatever it is we need to do to meet the needs of our special education students,” Zeisler said, including possibly dipping into the district’s general fund.

According to the county’s SELPA funding model, Nevada Union High School, despite losing a significant chunk of funding, still receives the largest proportion of money at 31%. Grass Valley is second at 13%, along with the Nevada County Special Education Services.

Nevada Union High School receives SELPA funding because it provides so many special needs services, which is unique. Most SELPA funding is distributed to school districts, not individual schools. However, Nevada Union is a special case.


While some administrators disagree with the changed funding model, they all tend to agree on one thing: “We don’t get the money to fully fund what we’re mandated to do,” said Zeisler.

Penn Valley Union Elementary School District Superintendent Torie England said the federal government has not provided the necessary funding to support these programs.

“That’s a huge loss of funding force we still haven’t seen,” she said.

England is referring to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed 40 years ago to provide a free, appropriate education for special needs students. At the time, Congress promised to fund 40% of the cost to children with disabilities, according to the nonprofit America Votes. But the federal government never met even half of its commitment, and as of 2015, it was fulfilling 9% of funding for the special education budget, leaving California to offer 31% and local districts to pick up the rest of the tab — 60%, according to a Public Policy Institute of California report.

The federally unfunded mandate instituted decades ago provided no statutory obligation for it to fund special education.

Or, as Gallup explains: “It’s a nicer way of saying the government has not been fulfilling its promises.”

California Department of Education consultant Halena Le, who does calculations for SELPA, said special needs funding has “always been the concern” for districts.


In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom increased special education funding for the 2019-20 school year to $646 million, but most of that money — $500 million — went specifically to preschool special education, according to education publication EdSource.

As the federal level has yet to live up to its goal set 40 years ago, educators note other issues taking higher priority.

“When you start two wars — Iraq and Afghanistan — at the same time, it takes a lot of money,” said McFadden.

England said she is not optimistic about the future of special needs budgeting.

“Eventually what’s going to happen is the bottom is going to fall out for everyone,” she said.

Consequently, administrators must decide to use school resources for individuals or the group, said Gallup. The questions that arise from this situation, Gallup suggests, are difficult.

“‘Art program, or program for two autistic students?’” he said, giving an example of what administrators frequently ask.

Ultimately, it’s up to the expanded role of schools to figure things out, Manchester said.

“School districts are asked to do everything, and that’s just part of it,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”

To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey email scorey@theunion.com or call 530-477-4219.


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