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A new state law that will significantly increase funding for school districts to provide an education for the highest-need — and highest cost — students is welcome news for school districts across Oregon.

House Bill 2927, introduced in February by chief sponsors state Rep. Susan McLain (D-Forest Grove), state Sen. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis) and state Rep. Betty Komp (D-Woodburn) and signed by Gov. Kate Brown in June will nearly double the state’s High Cost Disability Account from $18 to $35 million.

School districts get money from the state for their high-cost disability students — defined as students whose education and services cost more than $30,000 per year — but the money coming from the state doesn’t cover the price tag of those students’ education. That dips in to the per capita funding the district gets for non-special-education pupils (about $6,000 per student per year).

Forest Grove, which had about 125 high-cost disability students in the 2014-15 school year, has the highest per capita financial burden of the 197 school districts in the state,

By comparison, Hillsboro School District had 177 high-cost disability students with total actual expenditures of $7.56 million, according to district spokeswoman Beth Graser.

Of that total, $2.25 million was eligible for reimbursement from the state’s High Cost Disability Account. The district was reimbursed at 34 percent, or $778,265.

“Increasing the amount for high cost disabilities helps put more money back into the classroom in school districts that have higher portions of these very fragile, high-needs students,” McLain said.

“We know that when school districts have high amounts of unreimbursed costs, a significant amount of money is diverted from the general fund to absorb those costs, to the detriment of other students,” she added.

Hillsboro School District’s Executive Director of Student Services Elaine Fox believes smaller school districts will benefit the most from the new law.

“The bill will likely have a greater impact on smaller districts than larger ones like Hillsboro. Currently, if a small district has a student with high needs move in, they often have to dismantle a general education program mid-year in order to cover the costs of the high needs student,” Fox said.

“This bill should pre-correct for some of that, which is helpful and allows for more stable student programming.”

Forest Grove School Board chairman John Hayes served on the Governor’s School Funding Task Force, which ultimately recommended doubling the state’s High-Cost Disability Fund to $36 million.

“Because of the inequities surrounding High-Cost Disability (HCD) expenses, I convinced the HCD sub-committee to recommend to the task force that we ask for a doubling from $18 million to $36 million the reimbursement for expenses above the $30,000 threshold for each HCD student,” Hayes said.

Established in 2003, the High Cost Disability Account funds a grant program designed to reimburse school districts for the cost of educating those students.

The Legislature has not increased funding for the account since the 2007-08 school year. In that time, need has climbed to more than double the funding level. In 2013-14, $42.5 million in eligible costs were claimed by school districts.

At the currently level of funding, the reimbursement rate is roughly 40 percent. School districts absorb the unreimbursed costs.

“We owe it to these districts and these students to make sure their needs are met while protecting funding for out classrooms,” McLain said. “This program benefits all students and all districts.”

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