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COVID-19 Impact Creating Giant Deficits in Iowa Special Education Budgets

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NEWTON, Iowa — Special education doesn’t come cheap but Newton Community School District special education director Jessica Ferguson says it’s priceless. “We want to do our best for our special education students,” she said.

Unfortunately, the bills do require a price tag and the COVID-19 shutdown helped contribute to a special education budget deficit in Newton of over $670,000 last school year.

“A lot of that factor is we paid people while we were closed. We continued to pay people, like the state instructed us to do so, we continued to pay our paras and our part-time people the full benefit for their hours for the remainder of the year,” said Tim Bloom who serves as the district’s Director of Business Services.

Medicaid usually helps reimburse districts for special education paraeducators, staff, and transportation but no money came in after schools shut down in the spring.

“Those students not being in the building allows us not to be able to bill for any of those services those associates provide,” said Ferguson who also said those staffers were providing services to those students but not in a school setting during the shutdown.

With fewer days of school, the school bus transportation rates were prorated and costs per mile skyrocketed. Bloom said, “The majority of schools in Iowa have a deficit in their special education budget.”

The district budgets annually for a $600,000 deficit in special education and on September 28th the Newton school board approved supplemental aid the cover the rest but the community will feel it. “We are only allowed to spend so much per student so this will help recoup that overage and when we go do our taxes we can address that and put that back to our local taxpayers,” Bloom said.

The Marshalltown Community School District confirmed their typical special education budget deficit is $1.7 million but increased by over $600,000 to over $2.3 million in 2020. “We do not receive enough allocation per pupil for their costs,” said Bloom.

Districts receive extra funding for level one, two, and three special education students but they say it comes up short compared to the actual costs of their learning. School administrators say COVID-19 exposed and accelerated a state funding gap. “So what happens is this is a direct impact to local taxpayers whereas the state could just increase the levy in funding for those students,” Bloom said.

Some help is on the way. The Newton CSD was approved for therapeutic classrooms which will cut down on transportation costs. The district currently has to bus special education students that require them to outside districts like Woodward and Grinnell.

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