MUSD grapples with growing special ed population, dwindling budget

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Special education is a fundamental part of any school district’s curriculum, taxed with bringing and keeping children with a wide variety of learning disabilities in step with their peers.

However, in Maricopa that need is much greater.

The Maricopa Unified School District has a special needs population of roughly 15 percent, about five percent higher than the national average, according to Dr. Kymberly Marshall, district special education director.

“It is taxing at times,” Marshall said.

To determine the goals of the more than 600 children in the special needs program, the staff of more than 70 teachers completes an assessment of each child each year and completes an IEP, Individualized Education Program, which is tracked by the federal and state governments for compliance purposes.

In the district’s latest performance review Marshall said the proficiency in reading among special education students improved from 28 to 29 percent and math went from 25 to 30 percent. However, despite these increases, the district was not meeting the 45 percent target in reading and 50 percent target in math.

“We are not there yet, but on a positive note our special education population’s graduation rate increased from 46 percent to 72 percent,” she said.

One part of the difficulties in meeting standards is the growth experienced by the district and the larger than average size of the special education population. Maricopa Unified grew from a school district of a few hundred students to more than 6,000 in a few short years.

With that massive growth the special education program never had a chance to fully develop, according to Marshall. “We were always playing catch up.”

The other issue is financial.

The district receives about $6 million annually to help offset the additional cost of instructing students with special needs, including $740,000 in IDEA. However, the IDEA money is only a portion of what the school should be receiving. “The federal government is only funding about 17 percent of what was promised, and the funding we do receive is based off old census data,” Marshall said.

The reduction in the IDEA funding, coupled with existing budget woes and a ballooning special education population has led to monies earmarked for specialized equipment and supplies going to pay for staff and benefits, added Marshall.

To help with the funding shortage and the growing special education population, Marshall said the district looks to the help of volunteers and encourages parents to become extra involved.

“Any help we can get is great,” she said.

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