Baltimore City Schools Spends More Than One-Quarter Of Its Budget For Special Needs Programs

A full-time mental health therapist is not a luxury in a school setting. In fact, these programs are costing the Baltimore City School District more than one quarter of its operating budget, which is set at $1.3 billion.

The Education Resources Strategies (ERS) hired by schools CEO Sonja Santelises has categorized special needs expenses as “student needs”. The firm said those expenses are contributing to the $130 million budget shortfall for the next school year.

City and state lawmakers have agreed to pledge financial assistance to help reduce the deficit.

Previously this year, Santelises told the school board, “The fact is it costs more to meet the needs of children living in extreme poverty and children with special needs.”

Fifteen percent of the student population – or roughly 12,500 students – currently benefit from these support services.

When comparing $73 million the city spent on special education, it exceeds the amount spent by similar area and city school systems.

Baltimore city schools spent more on special education even though they had 500 less students with disabilities than Baltimore County. Baltimore County spent a total of $161.3 million on special education for roughly 13,000 students in 2015. The same year, the city spent a total of $203.5 million on 12,500 special education students.

Advocates are cautioning against the simplification of comparisons of the two easily distinguishable school districts. Costs vary depending on each student’s disability and some special needs students may require unique instruction, while others may be more comfortable in a general classroom. The children might come from disparate socioeconomic backgrounds and different life experiences.

The full budget proposal includes $189 million for special education and $34.8 million for nonpublic school placements.

The rising costs of transportation for students with disabilities will also pose a problem for the district. From 2016 and 2018, these expenses increased by $8 million, as city schools are depending on taxis more now than ever to transport students with disabilities and homeless to and from school.

Over the last six years, students who ride taxis have grown by 50 percent and each of those students cost the district about $6,400.

Other expenses include health clinics, where children are administered treatments for asthma, which is more prominent in children residing in substandard housing and poverty.

The district employs over 100 mental health therapists across the system. Psychologists, counselors and social workers are oftentimes assigned to individual schools and funded separately.

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