A county program to teach severely disabled students has become so expensive to operate that school districts throughout the county are wondering whether they can continue to pay for the special care.
Last week, officials at the Garden Grove Unified School District decided to drop out of the county's special education program next fall. Instead, school officials said they will save money by using their own facilities to provide legally required instruction to the 100 disabled students in their system.
The problem facing the special education program is the result of budget shortfalls at the county level as well as the school districts. The county has been forced to pass its budget problems on to the school districts by doubling the fee it charges for providing education to disabled students.
In the next academic year, the county will charge school districts $1,500 for each student sent to its special education program. For the 1994-95 school year, districts have been warned that the cost could reach $2,277 per student.
More than 700 severely disabled students between the ages of 3 and 22 are sent to the county's special education program by school districts throughout the county. Most of the students require extensive supervision and often medical care throughout the day.
The county program was designed to limit individual school districts' costs by providing services for students with similar disabilities, eliminating the need for various districts to adopt their own, overlapping programs.
School districts must decide by the end of January whether they will remain in the program, said Larry Belkin, director of the county office of education's special schools and programs. Last week, Capistrano Unified School District officials decided they will pay the increased fee.
"Most of the districts are saying they want us to do everything we can to cut the costs," Belkin said. "They like the service. They want to continue the service, but they're getting to the point where they don't know whether they can afford the cost."
While some districts may be able to provide cheaper instruction to their disabled students without going to the county, some officials also said, for some students, the quality of the education may suffer.
"There's a minimum level of quality that we're all accountable for, and everyone will meet that obligation," said Alan Kaufman, coordinator of special education for the Irvine Unified School District. "But then there's a maximum, higher level, which under good times we would like to be able to provide. Now we have to seriously look at the minimum responsibility for these students. And we don't enjoy looking that way."
Belkin said that Garden Grove Unified was the first district to end its contract with the county.
"They're one of the largest districts," he said. "It's an extreme economic burden for them to come up with that excess cost, but they probably have the resources to serve those students themselves."
He said that many of the other large districts may also be able to provide for their disabled students. Smaller districts, with fewer disabled students, might be able to afford the county's increased fee, he said.
Belkin predicted the problem would be greatest for medium-sized districts. "They're in a real tough spot," he said. "It's not going to be easy."
Garden Grove Unified School District Supt. Ed Dundon said he understands the problems caused by plummeting state funding. But he was critical of the county for waiting too long before trying to reduce its expenses. The result, he said, forced some districts to take their students back.
"I just deeply wish this hadn't happened," he said. "I'm not angry at any one person, I just think we all could have done a better job on this."
Capistrano Unified Supt. James A. Fleming said that his district's 66 students would stay with the county program for one more year at an added cost of $50,000. But he added: "We are looking to kind of follow Garden Grove's example. We felt we needed time for transition.
"We have put Orange County on notice that by 1994-95 we will retrieve most of those youngsters, if not all. Some, whose disability is so severe and (unique) would remain, but that would be the exception rather than the rule."
Fleming said that with the sour economy and less money from the state, districts are being forced to use money for other school programs to pay for special education.
"We're not opposed to special education being fully funded the way it should be, but we are extremely concerned that as funding from external agencies does not keep up, we have to take it out of our own pockets," he said. "It is virtually a crisis."