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Students head back to Kelly Walsh High School after their lunch break on Dec. 12. The Natrona County school board said the district spends more annually on special education than high school instruction.

A handful of school administrators warned lawmakers of the looming effects of the Legislature’s special education funding cap last week, as part of a wide-ranging discussion about the state of the service in Wyoming.

“We have a small budget in a small school (district) in Wyoming,” Amy Vineyard, the school board chairwoman in Sheridan County School District No. 3, the state’s smallest school district, told lawmakers last week. “If we ended up having a special education student that did have to be placed or did have high needs ... our budget would be ruined. There would be no way that we could care for that child. ... The cap — there needs to be leniency in there somewhere.”

The issue Vineyard and other educators raised wasn’t that they wouldn’t care for the students, but rather that a cap would make it fiscally impossible. Wyoming is one of the few states to provide 100 percent reimbursement for special education spending, a policy that will last only through this school year. As a result of legislation passed and signed last spring, the amount of money the state will provide for special education funding will be capped for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

School districts have been wary of the effects of that cap since the legislation was passed. Special education is a significant — and uncontrollable — cost for many districts. In Natrona County, officials recently told the school board that the district — the second largest in the state — spends more than $26 million annually on special education, more than it spends on high school instruction.

Education lawmakers and officials have been studying special education for much of the past year as part of the state’s effort to cut its overall school budget. The state Department of Education has studied staffing guidelines, while the Wyoming Association of Special Education Administrators presented a report to the Joint Education Committee on Wednesday.

The discussion was broad and touched on efficiencies and the state’s effort to bill Medicaid for special education services. Alan Demaret and Dan Mayer, who gave the report for the association, told lawmakers that Wyoming wasn’t overidentifying students as being in need of special education services. In other words, teachers in the state’s 48 districts weren’t splashing special education cash on students who may not need it.

“We get referrals; we’re not recruiting,” Mayer said.

In the public comment period that followed, Vineyard and other educators warned that the cap would put further stress on already cash-strapped districts. They acknowledged the idea behind the cap — getting a handle on special education spending — was well-intended and that the discussion was needed.

Still, they said that after years of cuts, districts don’t have the flexibility to move money around to cover a shortage of special education funding.

Audra Crouse, the chair of Big Horn No. 4’s school board, said the district’s special education budget is $1.2 million. A family moved into the district this year with a student with “severe needs,” which will cost the district about $280,000 a year.

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The money is distributed and capped at the state level, so if a high-needs student moves around within Wyoming, the money should — eventually — be able to follow him or her. The state also allocated $2 million — $1 million for next year and another million for the year after — to help offset some cost increases.

But if students move in from out of state, for instance, or costs increased generally, or a student develops an issue from one year to another, it could pose problems.

Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, predicted Friday the special education issue will persist and become pressing in the coming years.

“(The capped amount) won’t be enough to cover,” she said.

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Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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