Judge backs county

April 27, 2003 11:00 pm

By CLAIRE ST. JOHN

The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors had the right to cut special education funding, a judge ruled last week.

After Gov. Gray Davis announced a $34.8 billion budget shortfall for next year, supervisors voted to cut funding for outpatient and residential costs — mandated under Assembly Bill 3632 — on Jan. 14.

A month later, Tri-County Special Education Local Plan Area sued the county Board of Supervisors in an effort to get the funding reinstated.

Without county money, costs would fall to the equally underfunded SELPA — managed by a board of school superintendents from three counties.

AB 3632 costs Tuolumne County upwards of $100,000 per year for special education needs such as counseling, therapy and, in some cases, residential placement for students whose needs exceed what the county mental health department can offer.

Because it has a federal mandate to provide children with free, appropriate education, the state issued funds for the program. But the money for residential and outpatient services in Tuolumne County totaled a meager $14,017 per year.

Compounding the funding shortage, Davis last year suspended that payment until fiscal year 2003-04. In this year's proposed budget, the money is postponed for yet another year.

To make matters worse, this year — in lieu of the insufficient $14,017 — the state only set aside $1,000 for AB 3632, to be split between 57 counties.

The $17 per county means the mandate is funded — even if it's not enough — and that makes it illegal to suspend county funding, said SELPA Director B.J. Ely.

"The law says that $1 is sufficient," Ely said. "If there's any money attached to the budget act, then it's a funded mandate."

Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge Eleanor Provost, who made the ruling last Monday, said otherwise.

"I thought it was outrageous that the legislature would give $1,000 — I suppose in hopes of just what the plaintiffs claimed in this case — that I would then find it funded," Provost said in her ruling. "What did it come out to, something like $17 a county, when it had been funded to the tune of millions last year? I found that conduct reprehensible on the part of the legislature."