We periodically check up on past stories to see what has happened in the time we’ve been focused elsewhere. The idea is to keep tabs on promises made and to see how issues are progressing, if at all.

At the beginning of 2012, I took a look at the exodus of local charter schools from the San Diego Unified School District’s Special Education Department.

Because of the unique way special education is funded in California, new charter schools are automatically enrolled in their home school district’s special education program. In San Diego Unified and elsewhere, the district charges charter schools a per-student fee for those services.

That fee has been growing seemingly uncontrollably in recent years, thanks in part to the district’s inability to limit the cost of its special education programs.

And, for the 2012-13 school year, it just spiked again, to $1,130. That’s up from $888 last year.

As we noted last December, the district has seen an almost 10 percent drop in the number of students with disabilities, with no corresponding drop in the amount it spends on special education.

(It’s also worth noting that the school board considered auditing its special education program, only to later kill the idea because it would cost about $200,000 to conduct.)

The steady increase in cost has led charter schools to flee San Diego Unified’s special education program. The district has sought an alternative solution that keeps charters in its program, but charges them much less and gives them the freedom to design their own programs.

Let’s take a look at what’s happened since we last wrote about this.

Where We Left It:

In May, when I last checked up on special education costs, the district had promised to meet with local charter schools to set up a new system to channel state and federal money.

In California, special education funding is funneled to schools via organizations called Special Education Local Plan Areas, or SELPAs. San Diego Unified has its own SELPA, which takes in all the money that district schools are allocated for special ed and uses it to fund programs.

Dozens of charter schools have left San Diego Unified’s SELPA in recent years to join SELPAs elsewhere, which have set themselves up as pass-throughs for state and federal money. Those SELPAs simply take special education funding and, after charging an administration fee, hand it over to individual charter schools so they can set up their own programs.

The charter school exodus has had an impact on San Diego Unified’s bottom line. As the schools have jumped ship, the district’s special education funding has shrunk.

When we last looked at this, the district was exploring redesigning its SELPA to mirror a program set up by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The newly designed SELPA would pass funding to charter schools and collect an administration fee. This would raise some much-needed money for the district and, because of the way the state funds special education, charters would likely get more money by being a part of San Diego Unified’s SELPA than they would elsewhere.

What’s happened since?

The main change is the spike in the district’s per-student fee.

The increase to more than $1,100 is particularly galling for local charters because the fee was forecast to increase to $976 last year.

“It’s a huge whack, to suddenly see that go up,” said Tom Donahue, co-founder and director of Old Town Academy, which opened in 2011. “They’re charging way more than any other district.”

District Chief of Staff Bernie Rhinerson said the cost increase is due to lower state special education funding, and said the school board will hear a presentation on the charges on Dec. 4.

“That fee’s not going to go up. It might come down, if the board wishes, but it’s not going to increase,” Rhinerson said.

Concurrent to the fee increase, the California Charter Schools Association is continuing to meet with the district to work on the new design for San Diego Unified’s SELPA. Gina Plate, senior special education adviser for the association, said that process continues, but is going slowly.

“They’re very linear,” Plate said of the district. “They have a direction and they are moving in that direction.”

What’s Next?

Look for some heated discussion on Dec. 4.

The cost of paying the district’s special education fees is a big issue, especially for smaller charter schools.

It’s been more than eight months since the district started talking about redesigning its SELPA to better suit charter schools and little seems to have happened. A lot else has happened in that time, however, including near financial meltdown at the district and an election, so it will be interesting to see whether the process speeds up at all next year.

Also worth watching is whether schools trustee Scott Barnett brings up special education costs again. He was pretty livid when the rest of the board turned down the opportunity to audit the district’s program earlier this year, and he may bring it up again on Dec. 4.

I’ll be at the meeting to find out, and we’ll continue to check up on this issue.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the California Charter Schools Association would be presenting at the Dec.4 school board meeting. The association will not be presenting at that meeting, but will meet with district staff in the coming weeks.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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