A state commission has ruled that the state must reimburse school districts about $1 billion in mandated special education costs dating back 20 years. But like many protracted mandate cases, the victory is largely one of principle. Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to include a small payback in next year’s budget, and the dollars will come from funding within Proposition 98, so it will essentially involve shifting education dollars around.

The unreimbursed expenses are for intervention plans for special education students identified with behavior problems. In the early 1990s the State Board of Education, under orders from the Legislature, prescribed interventions that teachers should incorporate into individual education plans, known as IEPs, according to Paul Golaszewski, an analyst with the Legislative Analyst’s Office who has followed the case.

The state denied that was a mandate. But the Commission on State Mandates ruled that to the extent that the state’s regulations differed from the federal government’s requirements for dealing with behavior issues, the state was on the hook for the districts’ expenses. Districts, represented by the California School Boards Association, and the state Department of Finance have been haggling over the amount for years, and last week the mandates commission ruled on the districts’ behalf. Rather than having to go back and document two decades of actual costs, the districts will receive a flat $10.64 per year per student based on their Average Daily Attendance for 19 years or between $50 million and $65 million per year, according to the school boards association. Attorneys for the school boards association are still fighting over how the money will be reimbursed from here on out. And Brown is proposing to rewrite the requirements for the behavior plans to minimize the mandate.

“Unfunded mandates have taken their toll on the state’s public education system. The commission’s decision affirms the need for the state to adequately reimburse (districts) for mandates,” Cindy Marks, president of the school boards association, said in a statement. “Without question, the commission’s decision is a substantial victory for public education.”

Unreimbursed mandates are part of the “wall of debt,” as Brown has called money that is owed school districts. Together with the largest item ­– unreimbursed science requirements for high school graduation that are still being litigated, the total is more than $3 billion, Golaszewski said. Brown restructured the repayment of ongoing mandated costs to districts last year, and included $200 million in the budget for all of them. He is proposing to add $100 million next year to cover behavior intervention plans and graduation requirements, even while continuing to dispute an obligation for the latter.



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