Flint, MI—The Genesee Intermediate School District Board of Education voted to disperse $3.8 million in special education funds, also known as Act 18 Funds, to local districts this week, but an ongoing lawsuit could change where that money ends up.

Flint Community Schools is currently projected to receive $252,307.95 for the 2020-2021 school year. But that amount could change if a judge rules in favor of Flint schools, who took the GISD to court claiming the formula used to decide how the money is dispersed among districts is unfair.

FCS filed their suit in July alleging the formula does not provide adequate financial support for Flint students because its weighted in favor of districts with a higher total student population.

The formula has not been modified since 2013 when FCS had a population of 7,207. Now, school officials estimate that number to be 3,400.

Judge determines GISD special ed. funding plan ‘violates state law’

FCS does not receive enough state or ISD funding to cover the costs of special education, officials say. In 2019-2020, the district pulled $8.2 million from its general fund to make up the difference.

Meanwhile, special education needs are on the rise in Flint, said FCS Director of Learning Support Services Melinda Carroll during the July hearing. This academic year, FCS has 261 full-time enrollment special education students, a number disproportionately higher than any other school district in the county.

“Special education needs increased by 10% in the last six years. Behaviors have become much more extreme. Particularly for students with sensory needs,” she said.

Whether the GISD must change the formula awaits a recommendation by Administrative Law Judge Michael St. John who presided over the July hearing. State Superintendent Michael F. Rice will review St. John’s recommendation and make the final decision.

For now, the formula stands. “Every year, the ISD Board has to approve the disbursement of funds…We’re still awaiting a final ruling on it, but in the interim we still have to disperse the Act 18 funds as the existing formula would call for,” GISD Spokesperson Steven Tunnicliff said.

Flint school officials declined to comment.

A Critical Look at the Act 18 Formula

The GISD Mandatory Plan allocates $3.8 million dollars of Act 18 Millage Funds to local districts for special education reimbursement. GISD distributes the money between its 21 districts and 14 charter schools based on a three-part, blended student formula.

After doing the math, St. John determined the formula based 85.5% of its total dollar amount on a district’s general population. The formula reimburses the actual education of full-time and part-time special education students at a rate of roughly 13%, he said at the hearing.

FCS has the highest number of special education FTEs (students who receive special education services for the majority of their school day) in the county, 261 students. Under the current formula, FCS will receive 6.6% of the $3.8 million, a total of $252,307.95.

To compare, Grand Blanc Community Schools has 153 special education FTEs and is projected to receive 13% of the $3.8 million, a total of $491,198.88. Grand Blanc’s general student population more than double that of Flint’s.

Attorney Kendall Williams, FCS’ lawyer, proposed a new formula based solely on special education FTE. If adopted, each special education FTE student would receive the same amount of dollars, $2,663 per head. Applied to this year’s numbers, FCS would be reimbursed $695,043 (instead of $252,307.95) and Grand Blanc would be reimbursed $407,439 (instead of $491,198.88).

More special education funding would allow FCS to provide higher quality services to students like DaVon and DeSean Johnson, who both have cerebral palsy and attend Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary.

“They are not able to walk or talk, they also are hypoglycemic. They receive, physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy,” Roi Johnson, the boys’ mother, said.

Before the pandemic hit, Johnson said she had no issues receiving services, but believes the current formula is unfair.

If St. John recommends a change to the formula, Superintendent Rice will likely rule in favor of FCS, Williams said. A change in methodology would be required but it would not apply to funds already dispersed, he said.

“If, at the end of the formal objection process, a final determination is made that the Act 18 formula is to be changed, the GISD would follow the guidance provided and work with all local district superintendents, public school academy directors, and the parent advisory committee to make any required modifications. Since the Act 18 funds are distributed to local districts over five disbursements, there would likely be ample time to address any required modifications through this process,” Tunnicliff said.

Forcing GISD to produce a fairer special education funding model would have implications for schools around the state. “It would be significant in terms of a legal precedent for special education plans. It would force other intermediate school districts in Michigan to look at their plans,” Williams said.

St. John is expected to have a ruling by mid-October, he said.

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...