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County concerned over rising private school expenses for Louisa’s special needs students

Posted on Thursday, November 16, 2017 at 5:00 am

Overall, the Comprehensive Services Act accounts for $2.7 million in the county’s $105 million fiscal year 2018 budget, an increase of 14 percent over the previous year.

Louisa County government and education leaders are trying to slow down spending on private school placements for students with special needs, one of the fastest-growing elements of the county budget.

But to do so, officials need buy-in from state legislators. They also face resistance from parents who believe private settings are the best place for children with severe autism and other emotional, intellectual and learning disabilities.

The number of local students who attend private schools using Children’s Services Act (CSA) funding is currently about 34, according to Christian Goodwin, Louisa County administrator. These are students who have completed an evaluation process in Louisa County Public Schools, through which educators have determined they don’t have the staff or facilities to give those children the services they need.

Some 870 students, or 18 percent of the student body, in Louisa receive some kind of special education, Carla Alpern, LCPS director of pupil personnel services, said. But only a fraction are deemed eligible for private placement.

CSA funding is also used to pay for children to access other, non-education services, including counseling and homes for foster care recipients.

The Community Policy Management Team (CPMT), composed of representatives from the schools, human services, health, courts and county government, authorizes payment for children to attend private schools or access other services through CSA.

However, the decision whether a child should be placed in a private program is made by their individualized education program team, made up of school officials, parents, and sometimes third parties such as parent advocates.

Special education placements in private schools account for 40 percent or more of CSA costs, Goodwin said.

Overall, CSA accounts for $2.7 million in the county’s fiscal year 2018 budget, an increase of 14 percent over the previous year. The entire county budget is $105 million.

The county’s costs are partially offset by $1.1 million in state revenue, but the state’s share of the total cost has dropped from 54 to 41 percent over the past two years.

At a Nov. 8 meeting, the Louisa County Board of Supervisors asked state Senators Bryce Reeves and Mark Peake, who represent the county in the General Assembly, to help them rewrite the section of state code that governs CSA. At present, the state’s share of CSA funding can only be used to pay for special education students to attend private schools. Louisa wants the option to provide those services in its own facilities.

“There’s no doubt we could provide some of these services more cost-effectively,” Goodwin said.

He emphasized that LCPS would remain committed to meeting the federal government’s mandate to provide students with a free appropriate public education. That mandate was passed into law by the United States Congress in the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Cindy Faison, chief operating officer for St. Joseph’s Villa, a Richmond school that currently educates 10 Louisa County students, said children with autism and other disabilities often get “lost” in public schools.

“What we have to offer is a much smaller environment and staff specially trained to deal with those challenges,” she said. “Most of these children need a very high staff-to-child ratio. Sometimes it’s one-to-one.”

Parents who have seen their children with special needs struggle in the public schools also question the county’s proposal to reduce the number of private school placements.

“[LCPS] teachers have ridiculous caseloads already,” Erin Johnson, a Gordonsville-area resident who has five children with dyslexia, visual impairments and traumatic brain injuries, said. “Some of the private schools are just better equipped to deal with learning disabilities.”

(Read full article in The Central Virginian’s Nov. 16, 2107 issue)