TAMPA — Questions raised by the deaths of two students in exceptional education have included issues about money.
Hillsborough County School Board member Stacy White said he wants an accounting of the school district's exceptional student education spending at next year's budget hearing.
An attorney for deceased student Isabella Herrera told reporters that special-education grants are mixed with general-education funds instead of being separated out for disabled students.
But school district budget officials insist ESE students benefit from every dollar, and then some.
"We're not fully funded," said Gretchen Saunders, chief business officer. "We never are."
It's a delicate issue. Just as some ESE parents suspect the funds are used for non-ESE expenses, some parents of nondisabled children suspect their kids lose out because of ESE.
An account of the spending is contained in a yearly application the district submits for nearly $40 million under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
As with Title I, a federal program intended to close the achievement gap between richer and poorer students, IDEA money is supposed to enhance — not replace — what the state provides.
"It's a constant battle that the federal government has not funded IDEA at any rate that they promised they would," said Maryann Parks, supervisor of ESE improvement and accountability.
To a large extent, IDEA covers the cost of a bureaucracy needed to serve Hillsborough's 29,000 special-needs students.
Administrators, including Parks, have their salaries paid through IDEA. So do ESE center supervisors, specialists and staffing coordinators.
There's money for service providers, both in-house and through contracts, who work directly with the children. These include guidance counselors, psychologists, social workers and speech therapists.
Roughly one-fifth of the money goes toward benefits — such as Social Security and workers' compensation — for these and other workers.
There is a line item for $2.7 million to pay 350 ESE aides. But the system has more than double that number, Parks said.
Similarly, the money spent on curriculum, materials and technology — an estimated 5 percent of the grant — goes to items specific to ESE. Examples include big-type books for learning-impaired students and training materials for ESE teachers.
The law requires the district to spend some of the money on outreach in a process known as child find. "It's our job to locate those kids that might need help, that might need these services," Saunders said.
The district also is required to assist with ESE instruction at private schools. More than 600 such children were listed in the latest grant.
Another myth school district officials strongly dispute: That they try to keep disabled students out of private or charter schools, so they won't lose out on the federal funding.
"The money follows the student," Saunders said.
"We are proud of our district. Sure, we want them to stay here. But we're going to follow them, we're going to take care of them wherever they go."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]