‘I wish I could provide more’

Administrators talk Marshalltown special education deficit

When it comes to school districts, a deficit of almost $2 million in any department would be a cause for concern; in Marshalltown, the district’s special education budget is swimming in a sea of red.

“I think it’s something that everyone should always be concerned about,” said Marshalltown Schools Director of Special Services Matt Cretsinger of the district’s $1,986,826.73 special education deficit in 2016-17.

He said most schools in the state have a special education deficit, but it’s still a concern for Marshalltown from a budgeting standpoint.

At this week’s school board meeting, Cretsinger presented information on the deficit. He and district Director of Instruction Brian Bartz were approved to go to the state-level School Budget Review Committee (SBRC) to seek the ability to go to district taxpayers to help fill the deficit.

“It’s approving us to ask the SBRC for the authority to levy for those dollars,” Bartz said of the motion passed by the school board on Monday. “They (the SBRC) have not ever not approved those dollars; they’re just granting the district the authority to ask for that money.”

However, Bartz said if the SBRC allows the district to levy to cover the deficit, district taxpayers may not see an increase in how much they pay.

“This doesn’t mean that taxes are automatically going up,” he said. “There are multiple rates that can be adjusted so that the overall tax rate does not go up … at this point, we don’t know what we’re going to do.”

The next SBRC hearing is set for Dec. 12, according to the Iowa Department of Education (DoE) website, and the school board will approve next year’s budget in April of 2018.

“We’ll have a better idea in the late-February, early-March timeframe,” Bartz said.

As it is, Cretsinger said Marshalltown’s special education students get what services they need despite the deficit, but added he wants to provide more. By federal law, the district must provide special education services even if the costs go above the budgeted amount.

“I wish I could provide more … we’re doing what’s needed right now, but there’s always a step above you could do,” Cretsinger said. “I’m not providing the ‘Cadillac’ of service … there are other things that I wish that there was money available [for], that I think would be of a greater benefit.”

Issues with Medicaid have contributed to the deficit, he said.

“With Medicaid, there have been some changes at the state and federal level on what people can get reimbursed for,” Cretsinger said. “In general, the other part was the funding company we worked with before, what happened is they delayed a series of payments … one year we were short, the next year it looked like we had twice as much as we usually do.”

Staff turnover and increasing complexity and costs of students’ disabilities are other obstacles.

“When we have turnover of staff, by no fault of their own, when you come in with less experience, it takes more resources to do the same job that someone with more experience can already do,” Cretsinger said. “We’re trying to put steps in place to bring people in who want to be here, and provide them a lot of training and a lot of support so they’ll stay over time.”

Also adding to the deficit is lack of funding from the state and federal government.

“When the state and federal levels aren’t giving us enough money to provide that to [special education students] and it’s coming out of taxpayers, that’s something that always worries me,” Cretsinger said. “As a taxpayer myself, I want to provide kids with the best education possible, but I also want a reasonable amount of burden on the state and federal agencies.”

To combat the deficit, he said he looks within the district for funding to manage or reduce the figure, and added funding sources, like grants, are also sought from outside of the district.

“When I attend meetings, when I have conversations with families, there’s never a concern about ‘You didn’t give us what we needed in order to work through our disability,'” Cretsinger said. “But … when you have a deficit so large, the money has to come from somewhere.”

That means the district must use other budget streams to cover the shortfall in special education, or, as could happen after the SBRC decision, tax dollars can be levied.

Cretsinger said the solution to the special education deficits at Marshalltown and other schools in the state lies with the state legislature, which controls the amount of government funding that goes to DoE and the school districts.

“We need people to get our legislative body to increase the amount of funding kids receive,” Cretsinger said, adding the three-level funding formula used by the DoE to provide services to students with disabilities is out-of-date. “They’ve used that exact same formula for at least 20 years, so it hasn’t changed based on the complexity of kids and their needs.”

He said it’s these services are important to children with special needs in the district.

“Children with disabilities have the right to be in school, they have the right to an appropriate education,” Cretsinger said.