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Officials question out-of-state school costs

West Virginia continues to pay millions of dollars every year to educate students at out-of-state facilities because it lacks the room or ability to treat them locally. 

During a presentation to lawmakers Monday, special education officials said costs for providing services have been unfairly pushed onto a student's home county school system.

"It's costing us a lot of money. Right now we're taking money away from other special ed students in our school systems because of our needs to pay for these costs," said Don Butcher, director of student services and personnel for Pendleton County Schools.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources has the authority to remove a child from his or her home and put the child in an out-of-state facility, according to a 2011 report from the state Department of Education's Office of Special Programs. Placement orders come from judges at the county level and are not made on education grounds, said Vic Fisher, supervisor of pupil services for Harrison County Schools.

A placement can be the result of anything from habitual criminal offenses to a student's specific needs, he said. That student would go out of state either because a local facility does not have room or because of the student's special needs, Fisher said.

The report from the office of special programs lists facilities in seven different states that served West Virginia students in 2011. The department of education paid more than $41 million for these services from 1997 to 2011, according to the report. It states the total cost for educating these students is higher because it also includes money the department provided to local school systems and money paid by those systems.

For about 20 years the state department of education has had an agreement with the DHHR concerning out-of-state placements, Fisher said. That agreement states DHHR will pay the education costs for all students except those requiring special education, which will be paid by the department of education.

Until the 2009-10 school year, the department of education paid all of those costs. Starting that school year, though, it passed the cost on to county school systems, Butcher said.

"As a result, county school systems have been billed approximately $5 million the past two school years," Fisher wrote in a 2011 letter to state legislative committees.

Presenting that same letter to legislators Monday, Fisher and Butcher expressed two issues with the current funding model. They said it is unfair there are different funding procedures for special education students and others placed in out-of-state facilities. Second, they believe there should be more state money devoted to special education services in general.

 After "raising a ruckus" with the state department of education, Fisher said the department began to make more money available through applications for reimbursement. However, Butcher said counties still had to pay $800,000 last year to educate these students. That money could be going toward teacher development, materials or technology that could be used in local classrooms, he said.

Placements are ordered through the county court system, but Fisher and Butcher said there are few statewide guidelines for out-of-state placement procedures. Because there are not set parameters for when, where or how long a judge should order a student to go out of state, Fisher thinks the practice should receive greater oversight.

"There probably is a lack of consistency around the state because local decisions are made differently in different jurisdictions," Fisher said.

The 13 counties in the Northern and Eastern panhandles accounted for more than 57 percent of the special education students placed in out-of-state facilities as of October 2011, according to another department of education report. Berkeley County placed 21 students, with another 11 students coming from Ohio County and eight coming from Morgan County.

There were 118 total placements of special education students made by October 2011, according to the data. However, the total out-of-state enrollment for special education students during the 2011 fiscal year was 274, according to the report from the office of special programs. That is down from the 432 students enrolled in 2006, but Fisher and Butcher said per-pupil costs for educating students has risen.

Fisher and Butcher said they are not asking for more money immediately. They think legislators should look at the current system and consider additional funding and oversight measures for the future.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843, or @Dave_Boucher1. 


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