Parents, school officials look to increase MMSD special education staff, improve pay

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The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) may look to beef up staffing for its special education programs following a proposed funding increase for special education programs statewide.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction requested a dramatic $371 million increase in categorical aid funding for special education programs across the state in its biennial budget proposal for the 2021-2023 fiscal years. The request follows an increase of about $21 million in the previous biennial budget, which came after ten years without an increase at all -- which trickled down to funding shortfalls at the local level.

The burden of an underfunded special education budget afflicts no one more, perhaps, than the students themselves who rely on these programs to succeed both inside and outside the classroom. Michelle Ellinger, the mother of a student who relies on special education services, said the noticeable lack of funding for MMSD’s special education interferes with a student’s access to the personalized care they may require and added that these deficiencies hit underserved communities in Madison particularly hard.

“First of all, our schools are frankly just being starved by the state legislature, and really the schools just can’t serve students adequately,” Ellinger said. “I’ve witnessed kids falling through the cracks. I’ve definitely witnessed the teachers trying to balance the needs of all students and just being stretched so thin.”

Ellinger and her family have a legacy of working to provide equitable access to education for students with special needs. 

Ellinger said her father, who was a member of the MMSD board, worked to create a special education program to benefit students with special needs, such as her sister, because no such program existed at the time. Ellinger also said her mother and she both worked in special education.

Today, Ellinger said she regularly lobbies MMSD and works to ensure programs her family and hundreds of families in Madison rely on are properly staffed and funded.

“I have, from day one, been a very, very, very strong advocate for my son.” Ellinger said. “I think it’s very easy for kids to fall through the cracks if they don’t have advocates at the school for them.”

Though Ellinger said her family’s time with the MMSD special education department has yielded relatively positive and she largely credits the staff for her son’s experience, she said the district would benefit from hiring more educators and aids into its ranks and advocated for a substantial pay increase.

“We’ve had some really great staff, and that is what, most of the time, mattered: the people who were working with him day-to-day were fantastic and have been fantastic,” Ellinger said. “I also don’t think that the staff make enough. They should be making more money. They’re doing very, very difficult work. More money would also mean reaching more children.”

A renewed commitment

The DPI’s request comes after an increase in aid funding for special education between 2019 and 2021 which DPI Budget and Policy Director Erin Fath said was part of a concerted effort by her agency to dramatically improve statewide funding for special education by 2025. 

“In fiscal ’20, which was last year, we got an increase of $15.5 million, and then this current year that we’re in, which we call fiscal ’21, there was an increase of $65.8 million,” Fath said. “For the appropriation that funds it [categorical aid], we are requesting that they [the state legislature] change it to what’s called sum sufficient, which means that the state just pays whatever it takes to reach the goal that’s stated in the statute.”

In order to bolster categorical aid, the DPI plans to boost the state’s reimbursement rate for Wisconsin’s school districts from 28% to 40% in the coming years, before jumping to a 60% rate in 2025. Fath said categorical aid is the primary mode of state-level funding for special education, and the strength this program hinges on reimbursement rates.

When administering categorical aid to various school districts, Fath said the DPI looks at the special education expenditures of a given district and then covers a portion of the cost of those expenditures. The reimbursement rate determines the proportion of a school system’s special education budget which the DPI can cover. 

The state legislature’s renewed emphasis on special education—which came following the start of Governor Tony Evers’ first term in 2019—is a notable shift in priorities following a ten-year period during which the body did not grant the DPI an increase in funding, MMSD Director of Special Education Programs Nancy Molfenter said.

“State funding for special education is the bulk of the funding,” Molfenter said. “For the past 10 years, they [the state legislature] have not authorized any increases in special education funding. That has just left all districts across the state with rising costs.”

Fath said the DPI always prioritized special education funding and has sought to better finance assisted learning programs in the state since the 1980’s, but the state legislature was not receptive to their requests in the decade preceding the 2019-2021 biennial proposal. 

In Madison, the impact of insufficient funding for students with disabilities was palpable and, Molfenter said, put a direct strain on staff at the MMSD special education department. 

“We’ve had rising costs for what we need to pay our staff, what we have to pay for health insurance and other benefits for our staff, as well as transportation costs for our students,” Molfenter said. “So, a number of costs have gone up without an increase in funding, so districts have had to pull from other parts of the budget to cover those services that are required by law.” 

As reimbursement rates flat-lined while the MMSD student population continued to grow, MMSD was forced to rely heavily on local level funding to keep its special education programs afloat. Molfenter said the district, in her view, kept resources fairly balanced between MMSD’s 48 public schools, but the ripple effect of inadequate state-level resources impacted the district’s ability to meet the demands of its expanding student body.

Molfenter said two categories of special education staff in particular—case managers and Special Education Assistants (SEAS)—are underpaid in her view. Case managers are responsible for providing personalized assistance in the classroom, and SEAs provide physical assistance to students with disabilities who may need help moving about the school buildings. 

Molfenter said the district may benefit from introducing pay raises and hiring a greater volume of case managers and SEAs should additional state funding for special education be approved, but added that, with sufficient funds, MMSD would not have to reallocate funding from other programs or resources within the school system to do so. 

“I think that taking a look at what their pay and benefits package is will be important in the future for maintaining high-quality special education services,” Molfenter said. “We have some really wonderful teachers and SEAs, but I know that some of our SEAs don’t feel as highly valued. I also think that we would take a look at our staffing patterns again.

Ellinger echoed Molfenter’s sentiments and said school districts such as MMSD cannot fulfill their legal obligations to properly educate students with disabilities if they are insufficiently staffed. 

“I think that we have to make sure that we’re honoring the fact that children with disabilities are entitled to that free, appropriate public education, and that has to be properly funded,” Ellinger said. “You can’t have that without having enough staff. You can’t have that without having the resources available to the kids.”

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