More state funds sought for education, opioid addiction

DOVER — The next budget is expected to once again be tight, but agencies are making pitches for increased spending, some of which must be covered by the state.

Tuesday featured the final day of preliminary budget hearings, which allow state departments to detail their monetary requests to budget officials, who then work with Gov. John Carney to craft a suggested budget. The governor’s recommendations will be released in January and poked, prodded and altered by lawmakers over the ensuing five months.

More than one-third of the state’s total General Fund spending goes to the school system, and the Department of Education is seeking to increase its budget from $1.42 billion to $1.48 billion. The added funds would go to a variety of areas, including enrollment growth, teacher pay hikes and early childhood programs.

During the public comment portion of the hearing, several people implored the Department of Education and budget officials to support a bill that would expand special education for students.

House Substitute 1 for House Bill 12 would provide state funding for students from kindergarten to third grade designated as in need of “basic” special education services. Students in fourth grade and up are already covered, as are all students judged to have conditions requiring “complex” or “intensive” assistance.

“If they’re identified, the school districts still have to provide services, whatever the basic services are. But they’re not receiving the extra resources,” Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, said of “basic” special education students from kindergarten to third grade. “That’s the issue.”

The measure has support from education groups like the Delaware State Education Association and the Delaware School Boards Association.

The state has seen a large increase in its special education enrollment in recent years, partly due to earlier and better identification but also partly due to some families moving to the state for its acclaimed programs, officials have said. Total student enrollment has increased by around 10,000 since 2009, with about half of that growth coming from special-education students, who are more expensive to educate because of the added services they require.

The Department of Education’s request includes $198,000 for the Board of Education, which is currently being funded by the Office of Management and Budget. OMB cobbled together money from leftover dollars, contingency funds and Department of Education money to cover the board’s functions after legislators defunded it in the spring.

The Department of Education wasn’t the only agency to draw attention Tuesday: Attorney General Matt Denn appeared before OMB Director Mike Jackson earlier in the day and called for additional funding for opioid addiction.

As of Oct. 18, 180 people have died from suspected overdoses. There were 308 fatal overdoses in the state last year.

Mr. Denn is asking for $4 million from the fund used to attract businesses to the state to incentivize economic development around treatment. He also endorsed $1.1 million in the Department of Health and Social Services’ request to treat addicts and respond to overdoses.

“We need to address this problem with a real sense of urgency,” said Mr. Denn, who called opioid addiction “the public health crisis of our generation.”

The $4 million would come from the Strategic Fund, which Secretary of State Jeff Bullock coincidentally requested to increase from $10 million to $15 million last week.

Additionally, Mr. Denn, who outlined a new series of steps to combat addiction in September, is seeking to create a recovery high school for students battling drug addiction. The school would be located in Red Clay Consolidated School District and could open as soon as the fall if the requested $2 million is there.

Mr. Denn noted the state received $54.9 million more than expected in revenue last fiscal year, which could be used to fund new programs and services next fiscal year. It’s one-time money, however, meaning any programs started with that funding would have to find a different revenue stream the following year.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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