Try 1 month for 99¢
School officer Rudolph (copy)

Portage Community School District Superintendent Margaret Rudolph addresses the Portage Common Council in August about her hopes for the school district.

Portage Community School District stands to gain $1.6 million for its budget if Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance and others convince Wisconsin lawmakers to provide more funding for special education.

School districts for several years have paid more for special education than what they’re supposed to according to state and federal statutes, Portage Superintendent Margaret Rudolph said.

The federal government by law is to cover 40 percent of a district’s special education costs but pays 15 percent, while the state is supposed to pay 60 percent but pays less than 27 percent, she said. “The program is simply underfunded.”

Approximately 370 students from the ages of 3 to 21 receive special education services in Portage, including 24 nonresidents, Assistant Superintendent Peter Hibner reported. For the 2018-19 school year, special education programming in Portage is projected to cost $4.2 million overall — $2.7 million of which is not covered by the state or federal government.

The state’s Department of Public Instruction in its 2019-21 budget is requesting $606 million in new funding for special education programs. DPI and WiRSA ultimately want to see special education funding increased to 60 percent in the first year and 90 percent in the second year, WiRSA Executive Director Kim Kaukl said.

WiRSA has so far collected letters of support for increased funding from about 25 of its 159 school district members, including Portage. The Portage School Board passed a resolution Sept. 10 in support of boosted funding.

In the coming weeks and months WiRSA hopes to collect several more letters, encouraging districts to also submit them to the office of Gov. Scott Walker, Kaukl said, which WiRSA will use when lobbying for the cause in Madison during the budget cycle.

The Legislature is expected to consider and finalize the 2019-20 biennial budget in the spring.

“Special education funding has been stagnant for a number of years and keeps getting pushed to the side,” Kaukl said. “As an organization we’ve pushed for this issue in the past and the funding has never been increased. But we have a lot of people behind it now. It’s picking up steam.”

Favorable momentum for the boosted special education funding comes as leaders in education have learned more about a recent change to the state’s Special Needs Scholarship Program, requiring taxpayers to cover 90 percent of special education funding for private school students, Kaukl said. The disparity has triggered anger and action among those in education.

“It’s just not equitable for public school districts to not be treated the same as private schools,” Portage School Board member Matt Foster said. “In my opinion, it should be the same for all of us. Either decrease theirs or increase ours.”

Why is the state only paying 26 percent?

Kaukl said it boils down to “priorities in the Legislature” – priorities that are as difficult to predict as they are to explain. “In my opinion, if legislators are still not aware of how this issue is impacting our schools, they need to attend Blue Ribbon Commission meetings that are held around the state, because it has been a hot topic there,” he said of a commission the state created for taking a “comprehensive look into our education funding system,” according to the Blue Ribbon website.

“So many of our districts make up for this cost by taking money out of their general funds – with some of them taking as much as 15 to 18 percent from their general funds just to cover special education,” Kaukl said. “So it has a major impact.”

The Portage district’s projected budget for 2018-19 is $28.57 million. The $2.7 million it pays for special education amounts to about 9.5 percent of its budget. Should the state ultimately pick up $1.6 million more than it currently does, Portage could then spend that money on other educational purposes or see a reduction in overall spending and thus also in property taxes, Hibner said.

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.

Portage Daily Register reporter