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Carlsbad Unified addresses special education, services

CARLSBAD — The population of special needs students is growing, according to a report Carlsbad Unified School District staff presented to the board of trustees April 17.

Dr. Rob Nye, assistant superintendent of Instructional Services, said the district reviewed nine areas of special education, assessing the services for the 1,383 students, who make up 12.1% of the total student population in the district.

Many of the special needs students attend Kelly Elementary School, but with a growing population and longer-term enrollment forecasts once Robertson Ranch and the Marja Acres developments are realized, at least 10 students will transition to Jefferson Elementary School in 2021 due to space restrictions and construction related to school modernization efforts, Nye said.

“It’s two instructional classrooms and a sensory classroom,” he explained. He added that with those factors, staff felt like the students who are the “more fragile population” should be moved to a site with more space.

The district also covers transportation costs for 275 qualified students. The cost has increased 13% since the 2014-15 school year, although the district has managed to decrease the cost per trip even though the number of students is up over the past three years.

One concern is the rapid growth of special needs students. Tim Evanson, director of pupil services, said preschool enrollment is rising, although the district could not totally pinpoint the cause.

One reason, he theorized, is parents are getting earlier intervention and diagnoses, noting diagnoses such as autism are rising.

For example, the population of special needs students at Buena Vista Elementary School has risen from 55 students to 83 over the past four years.

Another challenge the district faces is the cost of students engaged in nonpublic schools and agencies.

In nonpublic schools, the average cost for the district is about $54,000 per year per student, for residential treatment centers it is about $106,409 and for nonpublic agencies services it is between $280,000 and $400,000.

A nonpublic agency covers residential treatment centers for students afflicted with more severe conditions needing resources the district cannot provide.

Evanson said there are layers to the nonpublic entities, which provide support in classrooms or an external setting. For some students, for various reasons, those needs are not met in the classroom.

Treatment centers provide services for a variety of issues, from mental to physical. In short, Nye said, when the district cannot meet those needs, outside resources are brought in.

“They are really when we can’t service the needs of those students through an agency,” he added. “We need to bring in an outside agency or they need to be educated through another school that we currently can’t provide for their needs.”

The growing concern for the board is the lack of funding increases from the state and federal sources. Nye said state and federal funding has increased just 10.4% since 2014-15 and has been outpaced by rising costs for other services and personnel.

Conversely, the general fund expenditures for Carlsbad Unified have risen 35.4%, while special education costs have increased by 48% over the same time span. Nye said it’s not specific to the district, saying it’s a statewide problem as the state and federal funding barely even matches a cost of living raise.

One area of cost savings, though, is at the elementary level, where the Social Emotional Academic Support (SEAS) program requires a special day class due to the disability. Typically, Evanson, those students have more challenges, with programs at Calavera Hills elementary and middle schools and Carlsbad High School.

The SEAS program allowed the district to hire more staff resulting in about $50,000 in savings, he added.

Nye recommended hiring two full-time psychologists to offset some costs in using outside service providers. Still, the positions result in a $100,000 net cost to the district.

Another cost-saving move will be attempting to convert some of the contracted workers with the North Coastal Consortium for Special Education (NCCSE) into district employees, Evanson said.

“We are trying to, at some point and whenever we can, to bring some of our NCCSE employees on board,” Nye added. “There tends to be a cost savings when we do that.”