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Mercer Island School District receives $185K for special education

The Mercer Island School District has been granted $185,000 in state Safety Net funds for its special education program. The money will be used to cover what the district had to pay in 2007-2008 for its “high cost” special education students.

The funds are available by application to all Washington public schools as part of the state’s constitutional duty to finance special education. In recent years, the state has fallen more than $100 million short of its legal share. As a result, school districts such as Mercer Island have been forced to use local levy dollars to cover the deficit.

In the last budgetary year, roughly $900,000 was taken from Island levies to cover special education. This money was in addition to state funds.

According to state Legislature, if a school district has to pay for special needs students out of its own pocket, it can apply for reimbursement through the Safety Net Program. The application process, however, is both lengthy and tedious.

“You have to apply for each individual [special needs] student. Each student’s application takes hours to complete,” said Director of Student Services Pat Turner, who was one of several administrators working on the Safety Net application.

Schools must list the exact cost of each student and what these funds went toward, she added. The applicant’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) must comply with state law in order for the grant to receive approval.

“Safety Net will not fund a student’s plan if there are errors in it,” Turner said. “It’s high cost students who have exceptional needs, such as an interpreter for a deaf student or a child, who need one-on-one attention.”

The district applied for Safety Net funding twice this year.

In January, administrators applied for $231,000 to cover nine “high cost” students. MISD was granted $167,000. This past spring, administrators applied for $206,000 to cover 11 students. The recent news that the district will receive $185,000 from the state — 90 percent of what was asked for — was greeted with elation.

“We’re ecstatic. Last year, we got a total of about $77,000,” Turner said, adding that Mercer Island was the only school in Washington to earn 90 percent of its most recent request. “This is what the state owes us as basic education.”

The district still has to cover the original $16,000 per student — a total of $320,000 for 20 children — according to Turner. Even so, a check for $353,000 is reason to celebrate. And although the money has not yet arrived, administrators are certain that the state will stick to its numbers.

“We can’t count our chickens before they hatch, but we can certainly rely heavily on their figures,” Turner said.

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