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‘Extraordinary Aid’ to Offset Special-Needs Costs Continues to Dwindle

While amount in state budget remains relatively stable, funds cover smaller percentage of school district expenses

The state’s extra funding for school districts with high special-education costs was created more than a decade ago. For districts eligible for the aptly named “extraordinary aid,” the state would pick up the bulk of additional costs for students who cost more than $40,000 a year to educate.

Over the last five years, though, that promised amount has dwindled.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Education alerted districts applying for the extra aid that it would pay 58 percent of the eligible costs. The funding level is a drop from 63 percent last year, and marks a significant drop from even the aftermath of the state’s fiscal crisis in 2012, when the state paid 77 percent.

Nonetheless, overall funding for extraordinary aid has remained steady. This year, the state has earmarked $165 million for such aid, the same as last year, and a slight increase over the $162.8 million budgeted in 2013.

And state officials point out that the aid has gone to offset the costs of educating more special-needs students, albeit at a smaller share per student. This year, the money is going to supplement funding for 13,200 students.

Still, as the cost of educating these students has increased, the shrinking share of extraordinary aid is emblematic of the fiscal constraints that schools are facing in addressing rising special-education costs.

“It was named extraordinary aid for a reason, to help schools cover the extraordinary costs, and the purpose was to stabilize budgets and see students’ needs fulfilled,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a group representing suburban schools.

“It adds balance to the unpredictability for schools and serves as an essential foundation,” she said. “So there is reason to be concerned about the share diminishing year after year and the low point it has reached.”

A relatively small piece of the overall funding pie, extraordinary aid has been a point of contention for years. The funding amount pales in comparison to the estimated $2 billion-plus in special education spending statewide, but it’s been a hot-button topic because serving the highest-need students that can have the biggest impact on school budgets.

More than 500 districts get at least some extraordinary aid, and nearly 50 received more than $1 million in 2013-14, the most recently posted accounting.

The districts were varied, with the most recent list of the largest recipients including Lakewood at $3.6 million, the very highest amount, and Bernards Township at $2.6 million. Both exceed Newark, the state’s largest district, which received $1.9 million in extraordinary aid in 2014.

The Christie administration two years ago sought to alter the thresholds, raising the amount that districts would need to spend first before being eligible for the additional aid.

All of these issues have been prime topics for a task force charged with reviewing the state’s special-education funding. The panel’s long-awaited report has yet to be released by the Christie administration, with a spokesman saying yesterday that it remains under review.

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