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Districts Across Pennsylvania Protest Shortfall in Special- Education Funding

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A mounting deficit in Pennsylvania's special-education budget is spawning fiscal chaos, consternation, and tough new budget reviews in school districts around the state.

"I've been in Pennsylvania 15 years," said Dennis Harken, the executive director of the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, "and, although we've been through some chaotic experiences in special education, this is the worst it's been."

Despite an expected surplus in Pennsylvania's overall state budget this year, the special-education budget is $48 million in the red, state education officials say. Left unchecked, the shortfall is expected to grow to $90 million by June 1990.

While the deficit has not immediately affected the intermediate units that serve the state's most severely handicapped students, it has hit local school districts hard. Last August and in January, the state was unable to pay the districts millions of dollars that it owes them for special education.

"So far, it means that I lost $30,000 in earned interest and I'm juggling accounts to make up the difference," said John Byrne, superintendent of the Council Rock district in the southeastern part of the state. He said his district is currently picking up the tab for $770,000 in special-education costs.

The Centennial School District in Bucks County has gone to court in an effort to get the money owed it by the state. And other local school officials warn that services for the handicapped and the gifted may suffer if they must wait much longer for the payments, which the education department has promised to make in June if the legislature approves a supplemental appropriation to ease the crisis.

Special education in Pennsylvania is funded by an "excess cost" formula, through which the state pays for the cost of special services that districts must provide to students in addition to basic education.

According to Representative Ronald Cowell, the Allegheny County Democrat who chairs the House education committee, one reason for the budget shortfall is that in the early 1980's state education officials stopped seeking supplemental appropriations when districts' actual costs exceeded available funding.

Rather, he said, the department started putting off making the payments until the next fiscal year.

"As the problem grew, it became impossible to roll it back into the next year anymore," he said.

Department officials, however, contend that the problem is due to unconstrained growth in local spending.

"The deficit exists partly because there was never any review of the budgets before," said Janet Elfring, a department spokesman.

The situation has prompted the department for the first time in at least 10 years to begin reviewing the special-education budgets of all intermediate units and school districts. And the resulting process has local educators threatening lawsuits and accusing the department of evading its financial responsibility.

"They seem to be attempting to get themselves out of the hole by shifting the costs of special education to districts and reducing programs," Mr. Harken said. "At the very least, the risk is that the quality and quantity of services will decline," he added.

For his intermediate unit, which serves 22 Philadelphia-area school districts, state budget reviewers have recommended $1.5 million worth of cuts in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

He said the education department is disallowing expenditures for most supportive services, including adaptive-physical-education teachers, social workers, and art and music teachers.

"We have specially trained teachers providing services in the centers 100 percent of the time," said D. Roger Meehan, assistant executive director of the Allegheny County Intermediate Unit. "They do things that we say cannot be done through the regular school."

His unit, serving 42 Pittsburgh-area school districts, faces $1.5 million in prospective budget cuts next year. Where such services are required by federal or state statutes, the local districts may be forced to make up the difference.

"Some of our districts are in low-income areas where the mills have shut down," he said. "I don't know how they're going to do it."

For their part, state education department spokesmen last week said the cutbacks will be less painful than local educators portray them.

"If they make the changes we've recommended, we feel there'll be no impact on programs," said Charles Wall, who is conducting the budget reviews for Secretary of Education Thomas Gilhool.

He said Gov. Robert P. Casey has asked the legislature to boost overall state education spending by $140 million next year, including $25 million this year and an additional $12 million in each of the next two fiscal years for special education. The legislature is expected to allocate that amount or more in May.

Bill West, executive director of the Association for Retarded Citizens of Pennsylvania, is among those who say the Governor's budget request does not go far enough.

He said the plan is "tokenism" because it fails to take into account the $64-million special-education debt that the state already faces for the coming fiscal year. State officials say the figure is closer to $48 million.

"I think it's probably going to get worse before it gets better," he said.

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