Special education interests wary of changes to school funding

The state’s education board is poised to approve a $3.5 billion spending plan for public schools that has drawn strong opposition from special education interests.

For St. Mary Parish, preliminary funding levels from the Minimum Foundation Program indicate a loss.

Although St. Mary Parish School Board’s total headcount has increased by nine when compared to 2012-13, the 2013-14 total anticipated MFP funding will decrease by $503,340 compared to the current year’s funding. Total MFP funding amount went from $44.74 million in 2012-13 to $44.24 million anticipated in 2013-14, according to Becky Voisin, St. Mary Parish School System chief accountant.

“This decrease is mainly attributable to our dollar per pupil value decreasing by $55, which equates to an MFP reduction of $469,242 compared to 2012-13,” she said in an email. “The dollar per pupil value is given to all school districts by the Department of Education. Decreases in dollar per pupil are directly related to increases in a school district’s local revenue in the two preceding years from sales and property taxes.”

Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members voted 8-3 for the plan in a preliminary vote Thursday. The Advocate reports that they were expected to make it final today.

The plan would freeze state aid per student for the fifth consecutive year, as the state’s financial struggles continue. And it includes money for a voucher program under challenge in the courts.

A key dispute Thursday focused on Superintendent John White’s plan to start phasing in changes in funding for about 82,000 special education students.

Some objected to White’s plan to allocate the money based on a student’s disability, where and how the student is educated and academic performance.

Preliminary numbers indicate a loss of $28,174 for St. Mary Parish due to changes in special education funding, according to Superintendent Donald Aguillard.

The change for the 2013-14 school year would be limited to 10 percent of the state aid, which the superintendent said will allow educators to review how it is working next year. White said the proposal, aimed at improving the state’s 29 percent graduation rate for students with disabilities, was made with considerable testimony from a wide range of advocates.

“The 10 percent John White is referencing is any change in the level of funding based on new formula. Thus, if change resulted in a $10,000 loss of funding for a school district, the fiscal impact would only be $1,000 for this upcoming school year,” Aguillard said.

Dozens of opponents criticized the plan.

Laureen Mayfield, who heads the Louisiana Special Education Association, disputed use of a key figure in the debate — the 29 percent graduation rate for special education students. Mayfield said some other states with higher rates allow those students, unlike Louisiana, to earn a traditional high school diploma if they meet their individual education plan.

Money for the private school tuition voucher program, which White helped Gov. Bobby Jindal push through the Legislature last year, was included in the MFP despite a judge’s ruling that the program was unconstitutional. White said that’s because no final court ruling has been made.

Voting for the MFP changes Thursday were Chas Roemer of Baton Rouge, Connie Bradford of Ruston, Jim Garvey of Metairie, Judy Miranti of New Orleans, Kira Orange-Jones of New Orleans, Holly Boffy of Youngsville; Stephen Waguespack of Baton Rouge; and Jay Guillot of Ruston.

White’s perennial opponents, Lottie Beebe of Breaux Bridge and Carolyn Hill of Baton Rouge, voted against the proposal. They were joined by Walter Lee of Shreveport, the board’s longest-serving member, who said the vote was too hasty.

The vote technically represents approval from BESE’s Administration and Finance Committee.

However, since all 11 panel members voted, the tally is tantamount to action by the full board.

Reporting from The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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