New Trier studies rising special education costs

With a surprise increase in its special education budget last year, the New Trier High School Board asked administrators to further study the rising costs.

During the 2013-14 fiscal year, New Trier budgeted $2.8 million for special education, however, the final number is expected to be around $3.6 million.

For the 2014-15 budget, expected to be passed next month, the school is budgeting $4.2 million for special education.

Director of Special Education Ellie Ambuehl estimated 15 to 16 percent of the New Trier student body receives special education. The number is about average when compared to area high schools, including Highland Park, Lake Forest and Glenbrook North and South High Schools.

Students identified with special needs are taught on campus and/or placed into various facilities such as the Northfield campus’ New Trier Learning Center or North Shore Academy in Highland Park. Students enrolled in private day schools, such as New Hope Academy or Evanston Day School, are enrolled with the intent of bringing them back to campus.

“More than anything, it’s based on the needs of the student,” Ambuehl said. “I’m committed to the least restrictive environment. I feel strongly we should be educating our students in our community. We really want to bring them back and support them, because that’s how they’re going to become successful adults.”

Students who are actively in danger of harm to themselves or others, or who have shown little progress in less restrictive placements, are placed into 24/7 residential placements. Facilities are located around the country, also with the intent of bringing those students back to campus.

For fiscal year 2015, 18 students are placed at the New Trier Learning Center, 15 are placed at North Shore Academy, 14 are enrolled in private day schools and 11 are placed in residential options.

Enrollment at the New Trier Learning Center costs the district $28,181 per student per year, while enrollment at North Shore Academy costs $49,756 per student per year. Private day school enrollments average $43,000 per student per year.

Residential enrollments average $55,000 per year for tuition costs and average $100,000 per year for room and board.

Ambuehl said she’s seen an increase in special education students at New Trier’s feeder districts, which caused the increase at New Trier. She also attributes more acceptance and awareness of special needs as reasons for increases.

“There’s a greater increase for this upcoming budget year than we expected,” Ambuehl said. “However, in my examination of the data, I don’t expect this to keep on growing. I expect us to see a leveling off. We’ll obviously monitor this data carefully so there are not surprises.”

The costs provided do not include reimbursements, which include about $700,000 in federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act money annually. New Trier also receives some reimbursement costs related to student transportation from the state.

Board members were pleased to hear the report during the Aug. 25 meeting, and were thankful New Trier was in a position to handle the unexpected costs.

“I am concerned at the cost increase,” said Board Member Peter Fischer. “We are very fortunate in this district that we can handle this cost increase without cutting things. I do feel bad for those districts that are having that discussion. It’s something [administrators] are on top of.”

Ambuehl said the district hopes to keep numbers down by pursuing local services before supporting outside placement, engaging in quarterly rather than annual reviews to asses progress and focusing on the need for transition to post-high school opportunities in the local community.

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