Little Silver superintendent advocates for increase in special education funding

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LITTLE SILVER – Carolyn M. Kossack, the superintendent of schools in the Little Silver School District, believes “affluence should not be a factor” when state officials determine the amount of state aid a school district receives to fund special education services.

“A special education child weighs the same in a district that potentially has more poverty than a district that is more affluent,” Kossack said during an interview on April 8.

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Kossack said Little Silver and several neighboring small, affluent school districts do not receive enough state aid to support the population of students who have special needs.

The two schools in Little Silver are the Point Road School, which educates children in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, and the Markham Place School, which educates children in grade five through eight.

“Affluent districts are basically being told we don’t need to have (special education) fully funded. (Officials) are saying, ‘You are not going to get all of the money you are entitled to because there are other districts that have a higher poverty level. Those districts are going to get more.’ (Our district) doesn’t have a vehicle to make up the difference,” Kossack said.

Kossack said about 100 students in Little Silver require special education services. A child who qualifies for an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) and meets a Discrepancy Education Model is classified as a pupil who has special needs, Kossack said.

According to understood.org, “the discrepancy model is what some schools use to determine if children are eligible for special education services.The term ‘discrepancy’ refers to a mismatch between a child’s intellectual ability and (their) progress in school.”

Kossack said 25% of Little Silver’s annual school budget funds the education of children who have special needs. Students who have what Kossack described as profound disabilities are sent to private schools that specialize in educating children who have specific special needs.

“We are sometimes spending in excess of $100,000 for a single student,” Kossack said.

The superintendent declined to state the exact number of Little Silver children who have special needs who are sent out of the district each year.

The district “is barely staying afloat,” the superintendent said, adding that the cost of educating one child who has special needs could “absorb” the cost of a 2% tax levy increase in the district’s annual budget.

Last year, Kossack said, some administrators, teachers and support staff were laid off because the 2% cap on the tax levy did not cover the district’s expenses for that academic year.

“We don’t want to cause a rift between special education students and general education (students),” she said. “That’s not healthy. We have tried to appeal to the state Legislature to understand that the costs associated with special needs students far exceed (the cost) of general education students.

“New Jersey identifies an average per pupil cost. Right now, the average cost to educate a pupil is around $21,000. Our district’s average per pupil spending is $15,500. (Our district) is so far below the state average … it is almost like we are being penalized for having been fiscally prudent for many years. … We are trying to make good financial decisions. … Unforeseen circumstances with special education are crippling,” she said.

Kossack said if one additional child who has special needs enrolls in the district, reductions in other areas of the budget might have to be made to pay for that child’s enrollment or placement in a private school.

The superintendent said the school district’s budget is routinely “trimmed to be as lean as possible.”

Although the district will receive a $50,000 increase in state aid for the 2019-20 academic year, Kossack said, the modest increase in financial aid is quickly absorbed.

“We are thrilled to receive any increase at all,” she said. “ … but the kids who cost the most cost a lot. (Special education students) are entitled to a quality education, but municipalities cannot be responsible for funding the majority of that (cost).”

Each year, Kossack said, the district receives state aid and special education categorical aid to help offset the cost of educating children who have special needs.

Categorical aid is state or federal aid that is intended to finance or reimburse a specific category, instructional or supporting program, or aid a particular group of pupils.

One-third of funding for special education categorical aid is based on the number of special education students enrolled in a district. Two-thirds of that same funding formula is dependent upon wealth equalization – or equalizing levels of wealth, she said.

Kossack said members of the state Senate Republican caucus have proposed the “Every Child Counts” school funding reform plan. She said Republicans are pushing to remove the wealth indicator when calculating the amount of special education categorical aid a school district receives.

“It wouldn’t matter if you live in Neptune City, Asbury Park or Little Silver. The level of affluence of the community wouldn’t matter and the aid would be equal,” Kossack said.

Kossack said several school districts have joined together to create the Peninsula Finance Committee. The committee is working to increase the amount of funding school districts receive from the state, she said. 

“In February, I reached out to local municipalities,” the superintendent said. “I said, ‘(our towns) are small. We need to have a louder voice.’ We started several months ago with meetings. We decided the best lane to pursue that would be equitable to everyone would be special education aid reform.”

The Peninsula Finance Committee is seeking bipartisan support toward finding a better way to fund special education services. The participating school districts are Little Silver, Fair Haven, Little Silver, Shrewsbury, the Red Bank Regional High School District and Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School.

Representatives from each district’s Board of Education and administrative team attend regular meetings, Kossack said. She said, “If the Legislature is not prepared to (consider additional special education funding) for the 2019-20 budget, we will continue to work to for more change in fiscal year 2021.”

Kossack said if additional funding for special education services is received, the funds would go toward preserving the programming the district has in place so additional reductions in other areas of the budget do not need to be made.

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