Rockaway Twp. schools: If NJ won’t pay for gifted, dyslexic programs, neither should we
A North Jersey board of education wants a little-known but powerful agency to force the state to provide funding for school districts’ programs for gifted and talented students and identifying children with dyslexia, or invalidate requirements that they be provided.
The Council on Local Mandates considered a pair of complaints Wednesday from the Rockaway Township school board, whose attorney, Nathanya Simon, said the programs have had to be expanded in recent years in ways requiring “an enormous amount” of spending without any additional state aid.
“Every local school district has been grappling with this, and it’s really starting to hit the school districts dramatically,” Simon said.
“The state aid keeps going down. The budget keeps going up. And the mandates now are going up, with no additional funding,” Simon said. “In fact, less funding than we used to get.”
Rockaway Township says it is spending $264,000 more a year on the two programs combined than it did a few years ago, for additional staff, materials, curriculum and training, because of state directives. In all, the district’s budget is around $50 million, of which $2.75 million is supported by state aid.
About two-thirds of that additional spending comes for its efforts to identify dyslexic students, after a series of 2013 laws that revised the definition of dyslexia and screening of students in ways that increased the number of students receiving special education services. The changes also require more training for teachers.
“That was a significant change. Significant. Because they were not doing anything with regard to the general ed population identification of dyslexic students,” Simon said.
Deputy attorney general Lauren Jensen said the identification of students with dyslexia, a reading disorder, is required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and, as a federal mandate, is exempt from the state-mandate, state-pay provision of the state constitution.
Jensen said the state and local schools risk losing IDEA funds if they’re not following the law and expressed surprise that Rockaway wasn’t doing it already.
“I find it particularly concerning that the school district is saying they were not identifying and providing services for these students prior to these laws being enacted in 2013. These laws simply implement what is already required by federal law,” Jensen said.
“If they are spending additional funds, then they weren’t doing something that they should have been doing before,” Jensen said.
Jensen said both the dyslexia and the gifted and talented requirements were on the books prior to 1996, when the state constitution was amended to prevent new unfunded state mandates. Modifications of those laws over the years haven’t mandated new spending, Jensen said.
“They didn’t need a new teacher” for the gifted and talented program, Jensen said. “One thing that they say that they spent money on: $3,500 for a 3D printing program. This cannot be something that’s required by state law. It’s not required. The district did not have to spend that money.”
The Council on Local Mandates didn’t immediately decide the case, in part because of one of its members was unable to attend the hearing due to being in a hospital, but said it would do so quickly.
If the time that council members spent questioning each side is any guide, they appeared to be more skeptical of the school district’s position, devoting nearly 80 percent of the hearing to asking Simon things such as why the district is challenging one rule that’s more than a decade old, what has changed recently and why and whether programs would be terminated if the council ruled in its favor.
“I’d like to know what if anything your board of education did to identify students with dyslexia prior to these regulations that you are attacking. If I understood you correctly, you said you did nothing,” said council member Robert Salman.
“What about the statute that says this council is not permitted to look into the sufficiency of funding?” asked council chairman John Sweeney, a retired Superior Court judge. “If there is funding provided, we’re not entitled to look into the sufficiency of it.”
Simon said the district provided services to a smaller number of students identified as having reading disabilities, if not specifically dyslexia. She said the district should consider a new requirement unfunded if existing funds aren’t increased. And she said the expanded dyslexia program is leading to other costs.
“This has become also a source of additional litigation,” Simon said. “I know Rockaway Township itself right now has two cases brought by parents who want 1-to-1 reading instruction for their child, one hour a day every day, just because they’re dyslexic. I mean, where does that end?”
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