Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Real Cost of Budget Cuts 4: What You Value Most

I have always wanted a pool. I love to swim, to laze about on beach chairs, and let’s face it—I’m not going to do any regular exercise unless it’s disguised as a pool party. But I do not have a pool because my frugal, corporate-banker husband’s refrain when we submit our budget requests to our family financial review process is 

“Honey, budgets are about choices. Budgets show what you value most.”

Invariably, while I hanker for a kidney-shaped pool with midnight blue tile, we have other priorities. We have two kids in college, our careers, an old house, three cars (one on life support), two elderly and slobbering cats, the greatest dog in the world, and each other. Those things all cost money, so every year I let the pool thing go. I choose our longstanding preferred money-suckers listed above instead. (But I still want the pool.)

The public debate over the county budget has my household shouting “Budgets are about choices!” because what we are seeing at this point are distractions from the substance of this debate. This debate is about three things:

  1.      What kind of place do we want Cecil County to be for its citizens?
  2.      What kind of public schools do we want for the education of the children of this community?
  3.       Are we willing to pay the cost (financial and ethical) of our responses to questions 1 and 2?
I started writing these budget blog posts because I am fed up with seven years in a row of underfunding the school budget and the effects of those decisions that I see every day as a teacher, as a citizen, and (up until last year) as a parent of students in Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS). I was quiet for a long time. I always thought that someone at the county government level would right the ship. I was wrong.

Thus, for the past two months, I have been writing these posts, and the heavy Internet traffic these pieces have received has resulted both in empowering some folks to advocate for the public schools and in angering others because I am challenging their conventional wisdom. That’s all good. In fact, that’s what democracy is all about.

Right now, the tremendous support that pro-school-budget community members have hurled at our public officials has brought about some replies involving distractions and distortions. I am an English teacher, so I teach argumentation for a living; veering off topic in an argument bothers me a great deal and costs a student points on the rubric. Thus, I am going to lay out my argument for school funding thus far (with references to examples from previous blog posts) and then address my opponents’ argument and what I believe to be distractions and distortions in it.

Fully Funding Public Schools: The Arguments

My Argument (Pro Full Funding, as  framed in my blog to date)
I.                   Thesis: The Cecil County government must fully fund the public school system budget proposal.

A.     Reason 1: It’s the law.
1.       Example 1: explaining the budget needs of special education students   
2.      Example 2: explaining the budget needs of children living in poverty 
3.      Example 3: criticizing the governor’s hijinks with the state education budget

B.     Reason 2: Our education program and school facilities can’t take any further underfunding.
1.       Example 1: asserting that teachers and staff are personally funding the schools to a greater extent than the public realizes 
2.      Example 2: using the CCPS tennis courts as symbolic of facilities issues 
3.      Example 3: challenging the county council and county executive’s responses to facilities budget concerns 

C.     Reason 3: The political mentality that got us into this mess is not serving the needs of the citizens of Cecil County.
1.       Example 1: criticizing the Angry Ones’ agenda 
2.      Example 2: challenging the county council and county executive's responses to school budget concerns  
3.      Example 3: examining complex issues like special education  and poverty that the public often knows little about and explaining how they affect the budget

D.    Reason 4: It’s the right thing to do to support the future of our county’s most fragile (in all ways) citizens—children.
1.       Every single thing in every single blog

Opponents of full funding are framing the argument differently in their communications with constituents. From the questions I have received from readers, I have constructed what I believe fairly comprises the opposing argument.

My Opponents’ Argument (Anti Full Funding, as framed in responses to citizens from elected county officials)
II.                Thesis: Cecil County should not fully fund the public school system budget proposal.

A.     Reason 1: We do not have the money.

B.     Reason 2: Raising revenue (taxes) to pay those costs would not be acceptable to the public.

C.     Reason 3: The public schools leadership has ticked us off and does not deserve to be fully funded.

Members of the general public have sent me their responses from the county executive and county council and have asked me how I would respond to them. Here are my responses in the context of these arguments.

My Counterarguments

Reason 1: We do not have the money. 
My Response: Yes, we do. Leaders just don’t want to do what it takes to designate that money to the school budget.

First, the county has not adequately explained its approach to the past use of the fund balance (particularly its use of the “non-spendable” designation). The public numbers, as they are presented by the county, indicate that decisions were made to divert monies from the budget requests in FY2014 into something that remains vague. Clarity from the county on how and why these decisions were made is necessary before citizens buy the “We have no money” argument. Furthermore, statements from the county executive that the county government offices have done the fiscal belt-tightening that the schools have done remain unsupported by publicly available information. I hope that evidence is forthcoming.

Second, the citizens of Cecil County have gone for years now without an increase in taxes regardless of the rate of inflation or the rate of the dilapidation of school facilities. The county government cut taxes to appease a small group of citizens, and that has resulted in a slew of negative consequences for all county services, not just schools. We can raise revenue in good conscience to fully fund the budget. In a situation like this where public officials push off the cost of public services for years, there is always a reckoning.

Third, responses to constituents  from the county executive have also involved the assertion that the public schools already receive most of the county budget allocations and that citizens have other needs, too, such as law enforcement and libraries and the like. No argument here on that, but schools get the most money because schools are the government agency that personally services 15,681 citizens every day. That proportion of the overall budget is appropriate, but that does not mean that the amount designated to schools has covered school needs for the past seven years.

Additionally, the school system has not advocated cutting library, law enforcement, parks, or other agencies’ budgets to feed its own. I’m not sure why the county government wants to pit these agencies against each other. The county government’s job is to fund county needs. Don’t cloud the school funding issue by trying to make citizens view it as a public relations game of “either/or.” Yes, schools are the largest county budget item; proportionately, they should be. Cutting from other agencies’ smaller budgets wouldn’t cover the school budget anyway. Stay focused on the issue.  

Reason 2: Raising revenue (taxes) to pay those costs would not be acceptable to the public.
My Response: Actually, the public seems more willing to pay up than any of us might have predicted.

In fact, at the last county budget forum on March 17, the Angry Ones’ presence was lower than ever. People stood at the podium and acknowledged that fixing these problems would cost money and that they would be willing to pay for it.

Citizens have been rallying around these realities:

Reality 1: Tax cuts were ill-advised, did not move the county forward in any way (in fact, they moved us backward), and resulted in very little cash back to individual citizens compared to the good they could have done if they had been spent on public services. In the town hall forum on January 13, the county executive touted the $5.9 million in “tax relief” that the county has provided over the past four years (since 2012).

There are many ways to view that $5.9 million. Let’s examine a few ways based on information from the U.S. Census numbers for Cecil County and on student numbers from CCPS (Table 1).

Table 1:
What does $5.9 million in tax relief look like?
For individual citizens
Total number of Cecil County citizens:

Total tax relief dollars per citizen over the four years:

Total tax relief dollars per citizen per year:

For individual households
Total number of Cecil County households:

Total tax relief dollars per household over the four years:

Total tax relief dollars per household per year:

For individual public school students
Approx. number of CCPS students per year:

Tax relief money per student not spent on each student over the four years:

Tax relief money not spent on each student each year:

Note the numbers: $14 per person per year (a movie ticket!) or $41 per household per year or $94 not spent on each student per year. This is the real “value” of tax “relief”—not so much money for you, the individual taxpayer, but think about what that money could have done for each CCPS student.

For example—just throwing it out there—with that $376 per student “tax relief” money, every student in every school could have had a Chromebook at his or her desk. Imagine how that could have aided in implementing special education accommodations. Imagine how that could have transformed students living in poverty who have no computer technology or wifi at home. Imagine how those devices could have transformed instructional engagement and instructional design for all students, including students in programs such as STEM. 

Would we have spent the money that way? Probably not the whole thing. We have buildings falling apart and bills to pay, as you know. Instead, it's an illustration of what we could do if our focus had been on making budget choices that show what we value most as a community: our kids. The tax cuts have been a sham in terms of what they mean for you, the individual taxpayer, and certainly in what they mean for your children. 

Oh, well. I guess a movie ticket is something.

Reality 2: Fixing this long-term neglect of the school system is likely going to cost us all money even if the fund balance fuzziness turns out to be ethically OK. The county executive says that CCPS has requested an additional $12 million for next year, or $11 million more than she is willing to pay based on current revenue projections. Assuming her numbers are correct, this total, of course, would have been much smaller if the county government, in ensuring that they maintain a healthy school system with proper funding and maintenance, had appropriately funded the requests all along rather than giving me $14 per year to go see another Russell Crowe movie.  

Reality 3:  We need to give public officials permission to raise taxes because they are clearly terrified of the consequences from the Angry Ones if they make citizens pay for services they consume. Honestly, I am surprised by the number of folks who have expressed their willingness to raise taxes. When the county executive informed parents that funding schools fully could involve an 11% tax increase and said “Are you OK with that?” (subtext: “Are the kids worth that?”), many citizens have since answered, “YES.” 

Note: If we use the tax "relief" numbers above, an 11% property tax increase this year, for the average Cecil County household, is roughly two (2) movie tickets a month (more tickets for the wealthier households, fewer tickets for the poorer households, but still: we're talking about the cost of movie tickets, folks). Budgets are about choices. Budgets show what you value most. Are Cecil County's children worth, on average, two movie tickets a month to begin to try to fix this situation, or are they not? 

The county council essentially ceded much of the budget responsibility to the county executive at that last budget forum on March 17 by indicating that they have listened to a very pro-school public and have no intention of cutting the school budget she sends them. They also emphasized that she is the one who proposes new taxes. The Council, however, is the entity who actually imposes those taxes under the county charter, so they certainly seem to have given her the green light to do the right thing. I see the political maneuvering here, but I also see the potential to right the ship at last.

Reason 3: The public schools leadership has ticked us off and does not deserve to be fully funded.
My Response: Seriously?

Too much of this debate has swirled around tangents that have nothing to do with the central issue of funding responsibility. Citizens have shared with me that, in response to their e-mails advocating for support of the public schools, the county executive has said that she informed the public schools of the budget situation back in October and that the schools “ignored” her on the “We have no money” argument.

Schools have not ignored her. Balancing the county budget for her is not the school system’s job. By law (§ 4-205 of the Maryland Code), the superintendent of schools must propose a budget that fully explains how much money the schools need and then advocate rigorously for that funding. (I really like this language from the law: “(2) Seek in every way to secure adequate funds from local authorities for the support and development of the public schools in the county.”) That is what CCPS has done. 

Just because the county government does not like what the school submitted does not mean that school leadership has “ignored” anything. In fact, if you search the public record of the past seven budget cycles, you’ll see that, every year, CCPS has been publicly predicting that the facilities and program issues we are seeing now would occur, and that the county government, in fact, is the entity that has been dismissive.

Some citizens (some Angry Ones and some not) want to attach their own personal issues to various pieces of the budget debate.

  • “My kids’ school won’t be renovated next, so no one deserves renovation money.”
  • “I hate PARCC testing, so schools should not be fully funded."
  • “Why do kids even play tennis? I’m a football man.”
  • “I personally think they’re spending too much money on paper, so let’s cut all of the funding.”
Needless to say, for any public entity to please any (let alone all) of these folks would be impossible, but their personal issues are not the point. Full funding is a necessity, and these whiny distractions are designed to skirt public responsibility for the funding of public schools.

Where We Are Now
Going forward, I hope that citizens continue to advocate for full funding of the public schools’ budget. Time is running out. The cynic in me is trying to hold onto hope, and certainly the county government is receiving more mail on this issue than ever. I am hoping that they are not deaf to these pleas.

If one more citizen tells me how this or that member of the county council told him or her that, “There’s no way you’re going to get full funding. Just give up,” or “Well, I agree that it’s the right thing to do, but people voted for Hogan for governor, so they must want local education cuts” (Huh?), I may punch a wall—but not at school because we can’t afford to patch the drywall. These public officials are responsible to the public. Let them hear the argument:

Cecil County must fully fund the school system budget proposal because it’s the law, because denying full funding has seriously damaged schools and school programs, because citizens are willing to pay for it, and because it’s the right thing to do.

Demand that they argue you on those points and not on any distractions.

Budgets are about choices, and they do show what you value most. Tell your officials what you value most. These are children’s lives and futures we’re talking about, and this isn’t over.


  • Contact the County Executive to support full funding of the public school budget, which she submits to the County Council on April 1.
  • Contact the County Council to thank them for promising to make no cuts to the education budget when they receive it from the County Executive on April 1

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Real Cost of Budget Cuts 3: Facilities, A Photo Essay

This week, I can finally write the piece that has been on hold because my best evidence for it has been buried beneath the snow. Last week’s thaw allowed this intrepid investigative journalist (or mouthy middle-aged English teacher—whatever) and my trusty assistant (or super handsome husband—whatever) to hit the road and examine some exterior school facilities issues that are symbolic of the county’s unending cuts to the public school system.

Hard-Nosed Budget Beat Reporters

I’m excited about this post because it offers the chance to rely more on photos than on words. I had a particular focus in mind: the tennis courts at all five high schools, which are likely to be condemned (as the Perryville High School field was last year), because the tennis courts are emblematic of everything schools are up against in this budget morass.

A Perryville parent, Frances Bowman, has been a tremendous advocate for the public schools (including that PHS field) via her website, Check out that page for more facts and figures than we should ever need to justify full school funding. I dedicate this post to her because she is proof that parents are our best allies in this mess, and we need them.

You see, schools have made the case for funding in countless ways, and yet nothing changes. I am at a loss as to what it will take to end the single-mindedness of the commentary coming from the county government offices. They are firm in their stance that they will not fully fund the schools. They continually dodge their responsibility for specific school funding issues by saying, “We don’t tell the schools how to spend their money.” Yes, you do. Every cut you make to the overall school budget is a cut to everything the schools are trying to fund. This post, like those on poverty and special education, shows that schools have no “good” options for cutting, and they haven’t had any “good” options for quite some time.

So let’s start our tour. We began in our own neighborhood in the Town of North East. Near our house rests historic North East Middle School (once North East High School). I love living near the school. My kids were walkers during their years there, and my dog loves jumping through the snow in its parking lot before the school custodians clear it away. In the back of the building lies the evidence that the schools are absolutely correct in starting to charge non-school organizations to use their facilities for activities.

North East Middle School

I see the number of groups that use those fields for a whole slew of afternoon and evening activities all year long, and that usage has left those fields a patchwork of shredded wheat. Someone has to pay that bill, and it should be the organizations doing the damage.

The damage that outside organizations do to schools is real. Having once worked at Elkton High School (the most often publicly used building in the system), I have seen teachers’ personal classroom equipment and supplies (remember the ones I mentioned in the first budget blog?) used without permission during weekend activities, I have seen electronic equipment in the auditorium disappear after an outside group has used the stage, and I have seen the trash left by outside groups using the football field. The school system has been nice about that for far too long. It’s time to pay the piper.

After that, we headed to my workplace…

North East High School—home of the Indians, a place of parent and community involvement, a school set among the birds and the trees. Even after this winter nastiness, it’s still really pretty.

North East High School

But this building and its exterior facilities should have been renovated years ago. The boiler is inefficient and ancient (it was installed during the Johnson Administration, after all), and repairing any of it in this budget climate involves picking and choosing from among the worst of the worst facilities dilemmas both inside and out.

North East High School

Note the drainage issues. Note the dilapidation. Note the long-term damage to multiple sites around the campus. And that’s just a few shots of the exterior. When I discussed our facilities issues with my principal, she explained how we receive a little bit of help via the Aging Schools money from the state (our only other real facilities funding source during these budget cuts), but those funds come with so little cash that the choices involved are ridiculous:
  • All of our circa 1968 bathrooms need renovation, but Aging Schools money could only pay for two of them. (Want to smell 1968 again? It still lives here.)
  • Both our boys and girls locker rooms were appalling, but Aging Schools money only paid to renovate one of them. The boys locker room was a bit more horrifying, so the boys locker room was renovated, and the girls locker room was not.
  • All of our parking areas needed new paving, but only the bus ramp rose to the level of awful that the money would fund, so the rest of the pavement is a hodge-podge of the sparse and the inadequate with drainage that leaves it looking more like an ice rink in winter than a school.

My principal expressed frustration that no project is ever completed to the extent that it needs to be completed, and the custodians try to keep everything patched together as best they can, but as our head custodian told our principal (about that boiler), “I’m out of fixes for it.”

Speaking of patched up: tennis anyone?

North East High School tennis courts

The latest part of our sports programs on deck for condemnation involves the tennis courts at all five high schools. If you think that my old school building’s problems are unique to its age, think again. New school or old, we have a problem.

Elkton High School—home of the Golden Elks, a place of now-beautiful facilities (and near-relentless community use of those facilities), a place of energy and diversity…and really bad tennis courts.

Elkton High School tennis courts

EHS was the last county school to be renovated anywhere near to the level that it deserved to be. Even that project ran out of money, however, so despite its beauteous main building, its tennis courts are just as bad as those at North East.

Bohemia Manor High School—home of the Eagles, with a pastoral beauty equaled only by the colonial cuteness of its nearby town, Chesapeake City, a place made for quiet strolls and local shopping and weekend getaways…just don’t bring your tennis racket.

Bohemia Manor High School tennis courts

Perryville High School—home of the Panthers, gateway to I-95 and legalized gambling, near Port Deposit, one of the aesthetically coolest small towns I’ve ever seen…and not on Serena Williams' bucket list. (These photos were taken after school on Monday--that's the PHS tennis coach in the white top. Thanks to the tennis team for not clocking me in the head with any tennis balls. I had it coming.)

Perryville High School tennis courts

And finally, saving the most horrifying for last…

Rising Sun High School—home of the Tigers, Kilby Cream’s dairy deliciousness, more old-school farming adorability than the new millennium can handle…and the scariest tennis courts of the bunch.

Rising Sun High School tennis courts

Note the consistency of how bad these court conditions are—the potential for student injury (you should feel those cracks move under your feet), the likelihood that all of them will not just need repair or repaving but probable demolition. Are tennis courts the most pressing issue in public schools today? No. I hope the previous blogs on poverty and special education gave some perspective on that. But these courts are symbolic. They demonstrate a few key elements of the budget debate better than anything else. The tennis courts are a symbol:

1.      All schools are affected by these cuts regardless of the age of the buildings or the socieconomics of their communities, just as all of these tennis courts are a nightmare.
2.    The funding cuts have led to scaling back the maintenance of school facilities for so long that much bigger (and more expensive repairs) are now needed, just as the tennis courts problem once was small and now likely needs a wrecking ball.
3.    At first, we all played along with cuts and hoped that over time funding would come as the economy rebounded. But funding has not been restored regardless of rebound. Like these tennis courts, with every change of seasons, school funding only gets worse.
4.    Like these tennis courts, public schools are YOUR property—you, the taxpayer. If these courts were a part of your home and you had a few hundred kids using them on a regular basis, is this a problem you might address? Let's say you decide to delay fixing the tennis courts because you’ve got to pay for special education expenses or for services for children living in poverty or for a new federally mandated testing system or for payroll because you are one of your county’s largest employers. Well, which of those things is your priority? Which thing gets cut first? Which thing is least important? Which thing is expendable? Which safety issue is the most pressing safety issue? Once a student breaks an ankle on one of these cracks, would your priorities change then? What gets cut then?

My response to county government when they start in with the “We don’t tell the schools how to spend their money" nonsense is now, “Shhh. If you can’t say anything true, then don’t say anything at all.”

And while you’re not saying anything at all, do so in the deluxe, well-drained environs of the county government building, a place of space and canopied vehicle storage and modern HVAC and generator equipment and well-manicured trails and benches...
Cecil County government building

Your headquarters are very nice, and they are the clean and healthy facilities that you should have. How about we give the kids a piece of that action? Or maybe we could at least run some cross-country meets on those trails? Those trails are really nice, and ours are underwater. You see, our headquarters look like this…
Carver Center school headquarters

Not too bad for a building from the—what is it—Truman era? And our vehicles are kind of squished into that gated area, but it’s cool. Seriously—we just don’t want you to take even more away. And perhaps, when our local newspaper comment-threaders are mad about their kids’ extracurricular activities having to pay fees to use school properties, they’ll use these photos to remind themselves of a few things:
  • which government entity is actually doing more with less
  • which government entity has eliminated positions time and again
  • which government entity deserves full funding for the first time in 8 years

The thus-far unsung heroes of this post are our school custodians. They are overworked, underpaid, and often the only thing between the humans in a school and disaster. They do an amazing job of keeping these buildings and fields functioning much longer and much better than anyone could imagine. If they had facilities and equipment worthy of them, just imagine what they could do. I wish that the school system had the means to support them in their jobs in the way that they deserve. Custodians save the day (and have saved the day for me personally) many, many times. 

Most of our facilities issues are much graver concerns and have much bigger price tags than tennis courts. The tennis courts nonetheless make the case:
  • This is your county. 
  • These are your schools. 
  • This is what you have allowed county government to do to them, and these photos merely scratch the surface. 
  • Do you want a better world for our children? 
  • Tell the county government that you are willing to pay for it. 

Fully fund Cecil County Public Schools—because, honestly, you should be fed up with this by now.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Real Cost of Budget Cuts 2: Special Education

As with last week’s piece on poverty in our county, this post is intended to explain the ramifications of past budget cuts and any new cuts to the county education budget. After 7 years of underfunding, the stakes are higher than ever, and student needs are greater than ever.

This week, my focus is on perhaps our most challenging, expensive, and litigious unfunded mandate in education: special education (and if you know anything about our unfunded mandates, you know that’s saying something). Our special education issues are serious in our school system, and the people who want to cut the county education budget need to understand that.

Topic B: Special Education

To help you in reading this material, I have divided the piece into 3 sections:
  1. If you don’t know the particulars of special education and how it works financially or practically, start with Part 1: The Process.
  2. If you know the basics of special education and want to know how budget cuts have negatively affected it in Cecil County, start with Part 2: The Problem.
  3. If you really just want to see me politely (mostly) use my Teacher Voice with local government decision-makers, start with Part 3: The Politics of It All.

Part 1: The Process
People who are not in education or who have never had a child who receives special education services typically do not know the process behind that label, a process with legal and financial ramifications. Here’s a summary of how it works.
  • Special education services are available to students with documented disabilities in public schools from age 3 until age 18 or 22 (depending on student needs).
  • To qualify for services, students are referred (usually by a teacher, parent, or guidance counselor) for an evaluation.  If that evaluation shows that the student has a disability in one or more of the areas covered by special education and that disability affects the student in the regular classroom, then he or she can receive special education services.
  • Once the designation occurs, a team is formed involving the student, parents, teachers, counselors, and appropriate specialists to create the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is a legal document that spells out the student’s special education goals and the services that the student receives to be successful in the classroom and to achieve those goals.
  •  The IEP team, by law, meets regularly to discuss any changes that may be necessary to the plan and to review student progress on the goals.
  •  Students can be “dismissed” from special education services if the team decides that the student no longer requires intervention, but most students with IEPs receive those services for years before dismissal is on the table (if ever). Dismissal is thus most common at the high school level.
  •  IEPs also involve planning for the student’s transition to adult life outside of school and designating any services necessary for that transition.
  • Another way that a student can receive services for a disability is via the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Students can qualify for a “504 plan” that lists the accommodations that the student receives under the law. The school’s process for a 504 plan varies somewhat from that of an IEP process (and a 504 plan carries some additional legal force across various aspects of a person’s life), but the intent is the same: providing students with what they need to be successful in school.
(For the sake of this post, when I refer to “special education students” or “students receiving services,” I am referring to all students whose education is in some way “specialized” under the law because our legal and moral obligations to all of these students—and the necessity of budgeting for them—are the same.)

Before the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 formalized public schools’ responsibility to educate every child, children with disabilities (if allowed to enroll in their neighborhood public schools at all) were typically segregated from the regular population. (See my post from last year on that topic.) Over the years, we have moved from that “self-contained” model to an “inclusion” model. (See this link to understand the differences between "mainstreaming" and "inclusion"; to learn more about inclusion, read this article by our former school superintendent and current associate superintendent for education services.)

Today’s special education services involve a blend of self-containment and inclusion because the law specifies the target model as each student’s “least restrictive environment,” the environment most suited to that student’s needs. Thus, many students are fully included in regular education classes all day long, whereas other students may be fully included for most subjects but receive pull-out instruction in specific subject areas or for specific IEP goals. A small number of our students with the most severe disabilities are in self-contained classrooms for most of the day, but they engage in some school- and community-based activities designed to provide contact with non-disabled peers. In rare cases, if the schools cannot provide the level of support that a student with the most severe disabilities needs, then that student can be placed in a private facility (at the public school system’s expense). Regardless of setting, note the emphasis here: individualized instruction required by law based on individual student needs.

Part 2: The Problem
Needless to say, providing the type of individualization specified by special education law is extremely expensive, especially in a growing special education population such as ours. The federal government originally intended to provide 40% of the funding for special education students, but federal allocations have always come up short (typically, they fund around 9% of special education expenses, as shown on page 13) Because special education students require nearly twice the per-student money to educate than their non-disabled peers do, this discrepancy places a huge financial burden on state and local education budgets.

Cecil Countians who have been observing our new education-cutting governor may detect a problem here. He is attempting to slice our state education dollars, yet we have no choice (no choice at all—these are legal mandates) in these special education per-student expenditures. His state cuts mean that our local government will then have to pick up any part of the legally mandated bill that he does not pay. We cannot just "cut" or "reduce" special education services because citizens don't feel like paying for them or because they do not support the idea of them. The special education costs remain under the law and must be paid regardless of the political mood in which we find ourselves. Someone has to pay the cost of those services. You get that, right?  

A serious problem with cutting the school budget as a whole is that we cannot scale back services to special education students, and those students are a growing segment of our population. Schools have to fund our programs no matter how these budget debates play out, and we don’t get to come back asking the county for more money at fiscal year’s end if we don’t get the estimates right the first time (as some other county entities do). Paying the bill for special education services is not a choice. It’s the law. (And it's not the only unfunded mandate that we must finance--I'm using it as an important example of how the law dictates much of our budgeting.) Our local funds are critical especially since the federal government (and our new governor) refuse to pay their fair share. Angry Ones, when you vote for a governor who wants to cut the state school budget, and you lobby your local government to cut the school budget, too, who do you think is going to pay these legally mandated expenses for a growing population? Exactly how is that supposed to work? 

In Cecil County, the number of our students receiving services under the law has been on the rise for years. Right now, 2,599 of our 15,681 students have IEPs (2,276 students) or 504 plans (323 students) (source: Cecil County Public Schools). That number is more than the total number of students in our two largest high schools combined. In one school, students receiving services constitute 18.44% of that school's overall population. Instructionally speaking, these numbers are daunting, and providing appropriate accommodations for all of these students (not to mention all of the other students in a building) costs money. 
Some of their accommodations have no financial cost, for example
v  repeating directions to students,
v  seating students near the teacher,
v  asking students to repeat directions back to the teacher to ensure understanding, and
v  having a special exit plan for fire drills.

Some of their accommodations are very expensive, for example
v  medical equipment for the schools for our most physically fragile students,
v  transportation services for students with severe physical challenges,
v  electronic devices (which can vary from around $500 for iPads that aid in reading, writing, and other tasks to $15,000 for devices for students with the most severe communication limitations) that provide us with an incredible (and increasing) variety of ways to provide accommodations for students but are often viewed by the public as frivolous luxury items, and
v  the number of special education teachers we need to cover the case management of all of these students (each IEP requires a case manager who serves as the student advocate, goal monitor, parent liaison, and overall trouble-shooter, in addition to his or her classroom responsibilities).

Some of their accommodations carry hidden expenses, for example
v  the cumulative cost of paper for each student who needs a copy of the notes from the board because he or she cannot physically write them down (this seems small, but this accommodation is more common than you think),
v  the number of teachers needed to cover special education testing accommodations, which typically involve required small-group settings and thus more adults, and
v  giving students more time on assignments, which often involves a teacher to monitor the student beyond the time parameters of the classroom and a physical location in which the student can do the work (often one of our academic assistance options during or after school).

When these accommodations are not met (something that these escalating cuts have made more and more possible moving forward), the legal expenses to defend the school system in court for failing to implement the IEP would, of course, be astronomical. “Our county executive and county council won’t fund us and these accommodations again” is not going to hold up in court as a defense because that poor excuse (like so many prior county budget shenanigans) is indefensible. Because our school system operates on the foundation of valuing all learners, the thought of not meeting IEPs is not only legally distressing to schools; it is ethically terrifying. We need to serve students in the way they deserve to be served.

Special education services are sometimes controversial. For one thing, having many students' disabling conditions in play and so many ways to accommodate them can easily overwhelm a classroom and its teacher. In addition, because special education funding in schools is a legal priority, other school personnel often view the special education budget as running over with money that can be tapped for other needs, and that perception creates a great deal of tension among departments and misperceptions about how money is spent. 

Furthermore, on a day-to-day level, teachers themselves do not always agree on what a particular student’s “least restrictive environment” is. I have been in extremely contentious IEP meetings where the student, the teachers, the counselors—everyone—disagreed on what to do to help the student. Determining individual needs is incredibly difficult, and then determining how to service those needs is even more so. As a result, this work is complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. Regardless of how tough these issues are, special education is a legal and ethical responsibility for schools, and thus we cannot just "trim the budget" where special education is concerned. 

Across our county, we have regular education classrooms with more special education students in them than ever. Typically, we strive for the most ethically sound distribution supported by special education guidelines, "natural proportions" (the number of students with IEPs in a classroom in proportion to the number of people with special needs in the population; for more information, read here starting on page 7). We allocate special educators to support regular education teachers in those classrooms based on the percentage of students in the room with IEPs and how complex their needs are. We just don’t have enough regular education teachers, special educators, or classrooms to manage this load. Our county decision-makers forced schools to cut 180 positions, remember? 

Across the system, those numbers in some classrooms are so far beyond natural proportions as to be mind-blowing. Our school leadership says that another 15-19 special education teachers are needed to have any sort of peace of mind about our special education situation (not to make the situation ideal--just to have peace of mind about it). Needless to say, with the county government's budget attitude, additional positions are nowhere on the horizononly even deeper cuts are on their minds. 

Debates over how to handle the lack of staffing (just another reminder—schools have cut 180 positions over the last several years while the county government added 30 positions) have led to internal disagreements in schools over how to manage every facet of special education services. We are all exasperated because we want to give all students what they need, and county budget cuts have made that a daily ritual of figuratively bashing our heads into walls. These conflicts are the result of people trying to do the right thing and (in the absence of the necessary resources to do the right thing fully) doing what they have to do in order to meet at least the basics of the law. In trying to meet those basics, we are increasingly doing so at the expense of the care and attention that regular education students also deserve. I would absolutely recommend that parents enroll their children (with or without disabilities) in our public schools. I am proud of the work we do here. But I don't kid myself about the direction we're heading in if no one stops the budget-cutting insanity. Tensions are high; resources are low; students are at risk.

Part 3: The Politics of It All
Groups of concerned parents (some of them with children who receive services) have advocated for the proposed school budget with local officials. At the most recent session, the county executive’s response to their concerns was telling them that funding the school budget would involve “an 11% tax increase—is that acceptable to you?” (listen to the county audiotape of that session around the 47:50 minute mark). She is asking the wrong question. Let’s say she’s right about needing to increase taxes by 11% to fund schools. Let’s say that past maneuvering with the fund balance was not the shell game that it appears to be. Let’s say that she’s right that the county government has done a “really, really good job” in cutting expenses. Let’s say that’s all true (although past actions have not given citizens much reason to have confidence in those claims). Even if all that is true, to corner those parents on the issue of revenue is wrong on a fundamental level because it deflects attention from who created our current situation.

You see, these parents were spurred to action by the snowballing effect of 7 years of budget cuts on their children’s lives. The lack of resources in our public schools right now is the direct result of the actions of the county executive and the county council in cutting the education budget. Her comment is a deflection. If the parents had said, “Yes, if a tax hike is what’s needed to pay the bill, then that’s what’s needed,” then she can (with the full support of the Angry Ones) dismiss their concerns with “Well, I can never get behind that tax increase” even if paying the bill she has previously refused to pay in full is the reason that additional revenue is now needed. The needs exist regardless of whether county leaders decide to fund them. The needs exist, the bill is due, and the bill is worse because of county government budget practices. Act like the fiscal conservatives you say you are: pay the bills. Instead of turning the tables on concerned parents, the question I wish she would have asked is, "How can we fix what we have done here for the past seven years?" If that involves taxes, then it involves taxes. If it involves more clarity with the fund balance, then it involves the fund balance. Whatever it involves, accept responsibility for it, and do it. 

Let’s compare this situation to personal finances instead of public ones. Let’s say you own a car. You don’t want to spend the money on standard maintenance as you go (oil changes, tire rotation, tune-ups, and such) because you want to go to the Bon Jovi concert, or you decide to have a baby, and hey—the car looks like it’s running fine. But after a couple of years, the car needs repair all the time. No oil changes means replacing valves two years too soon. No tire rotation means buying new tires three years too soon. No tune-ups means your car isn’t starting on these cold days. You need to fix it, and you need to spend even more money now to fix it than what you would have been spending all along if you had kept up with regular maintenance. We would all call such a car owner irresponsible and short-sighted (and we would have little patience for the car owner bemoaning his mounting car bills). Those two terms characterize our county budget decision-making up until now: irresponsible and short-sighted.

At that same recent citizen forum, one of the county council members responded to a parent with concerns about one of our most dire school buildings by not accepting the council's role in the funding of that problem and saying that the parent should go to the school system and “jump’ up and down”  (around the 41-minute mark) about having its facilities issues fixed. I am trying to be patient with you, county council, but the reason that parent was there in your presence in the first place is to "jump up and down" because YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. (Am I shouting? Sorry.)   

Respectfully, county executive and county council, we have cut so much from schools now (for seven budget cycles) that every cut you make to our overall budget is a cut to all of these services—every single one, including services for students in poverty, including special education, including building maintenance. Until you end this, no amount of public deflection excuses your culpability. The schools (and parents and even students) have been coming to you “jumpin’ up and down” to get you to understand that you are responsible to make funding happen. This situation is not pretty, and to do the right thing, you are going to upset voters who think that they do not bear the cost of their public services. Your loyalty does not belong to them. Your loyalty belongs to doing the right thing for Cecil County.

Forty years ago, the federal government took on special education because of the inconsistent and sometimes reprehensible treatment of students with disabilities in American schools. Implementing special education services is time-consuming, expensive, overwhelming, and often unpopular. It is a school's job because it is the right thing to do, and it is the law. For public officials, funding public education is also time consuming, expensive, overwhelming, and often unpopular. It is also the right thing to do, and it is the law. Our county government has been playing a dangerous game with students' lives with this money for too long. It's time to stop. Fully fund the education budget.  

Follow by Email