JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — Missouri lawmakers have approved additional spending authority for the current fiscal year, including a $14 million increase for a fund that reimburses schools for the cost of educating children with special needs.
The "High Needs" fund reimburses school districts for special needs students who cost more than three times the amount of a typical student. If the typical student in a school district costs $10,000 a year, that same district would qualify for state reimbursement for students costing more than $30,000 annually.
State education officials said the growth in the fund is a result of more children with special needs and an increase in the costs of specialized instruction.
In fiscal year 2010, Missouri school districts collected reimbursements from the fund for 2,177 students but last fiscal year that number rose to more than 2,700 students. Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Sarah Potter said the fund typically increases by about 10 percent every year. But between 2012 and 2013, the fund's cost jumped by 18 percent, which she described as "unusual."
The cost increase isn't only because there are more kids with special needs. School districts have also been getting better at documenting high-cost students and collecting the reimbursement money.
"Much of our increase in the last five years has been due to our efforts to maximize our reimbursement," said Dave Wilson, the administration supervisor of special services at Columbia Public Schools.
Other school districts have gotten better at collecting reimbursements, too. In 2009 the state paid $26 million total to schools for special needs students, but in the current fiscal year Missouri districts are projected to get over $40 million from the fund.
Wilson attributes part of his district's increase to a change in state regulations about how schools are reimbursed for students requiring 24-hour nursing care. Missouri recently began requiring districts to bill the cost of nursing care for students while they are at school to Medicaid.
"Unfortunately it also means we had more costs overall and we never recoup them all since the High Needs fund only reimburses for the costs beyond three times typical students," Wilson said.
Between 2010 and 2011, Columbia's reimbursement through the High Needs fund doubled from $600,000 to more than $1.2 million.
Some of the fund increase approved by lawmakers will be used to pay off schools for bills left over from 2012.
Some lawmakers have cited the growth in the fund as a reason not to spend every dollar the state is projected to take in during a given fiscal year. Gov. Jay Nixon's budget plan does not include any money for a supplemental budget like the one passed this week replenishing the needs fund. Luebbering said state departments have asked for enough money in next year's budget to avoid a supplemental, but some lawmakers remain skeptical.
"This didn't work last year," said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia.