Carl Ladd: The facts about unspent special education funds

For the Monitor
Published: 1/26/2019 12:14:49 AM

Public educators in New Hampshire must strike a critical balance in the mission of preparing students for the 21st-century workforce.

School districts use every resource at their disposal to provide a high-quality education. Educators also strive to be conscientious stewards of community tax dollars, which is why the New Hampshire School Administrators Association was alarmed by recent announcements made by the New Hampshire Department of Education that implied educators throughout the state have mismanaged special education funds.

More than $500 million of IDEA funds have been awarded to local school districts over the past decade. N.H. DOE recently reported that $11 million, roughly 2 percent of all funds dedicated to special education, went unspent and unused during that 10-year span, although no exact accounting of that figure has been provided and the number seems to frequently fluctuate.

Commissioner Frank Edelblut said some districts “provide less oversight of grant funds,” and further implied schools are failing to be good stewards of these federal funds.

This claim is inaccurate, and it is misleading to simply blame school districts for the ongoing challenge of applying for and expending federal tax dollars. We agree that $11 million dollars over 10 years is a substantial amount of money that would greatly benefit many students throughout our great state. However, the commissioner should know and understand the bureaucratic reasons why this situation often occurs.

There are many reasons why districts may not spend all of their IDEA allocations; all of them have to do with the very strict guidelines the federal and state government require of each grant recipient. Oftentimes, the problem has to do with the strings attached to the dollars allocated, or the unreasonable deadlines around applications for grants.

For example, look at the timeline for this process. Grants for the following school year do not open until late in the school year, leaving just a few months for applications and approvals. Special education directors apply then have to wait for approval, returns and changes, which can take months. In addition, due to state and federal guidelines, if a grant activity is written with a particular amount, and the actual cost is different, then the grant needs to be revised.

Unfortunately, that means the process starts all over again, delaying actions even further.

Keep in mind, any missed timeframes for spending those funds, even if the reason for missing the deadline is due to the application process, requires additional permission from the DOE and are often denied.

Despite these unyielding and frustrating barriers, our school districts spent 98 percent of the federal dollars granted to New Hampshire communities.

Superintendents and district and school leaders work tirelessly to provide the best resources possible for the students in their care. Budgets are prepared 18 months ahead of time, but educators don’t control the timelines for the federal grants, and have no control over the approval process.

Other common reasons funds go unspent:

■Districts are not informed by DOE of their unallocated funds, and there is no expedited process in place to allow them to reallocate dollars in a timely manner.

■Grant funded positions – such as paraeducators or specialists – go unfilled because there are no qualified applicants;

■Private schools in local districts receive pro-rated shares of federal funds as required by law. Some of those private school services were not needed or used by the private school – and the grant window closes before they can possibly be re-allocated

The very regulatory hurdles and red tape that so many business owners and taxpayers complain about are also barriers to efficiency in funding special education programs in our state.

Educators stand ready to work collaboratively with the department to address any issue that could benefit students and local communities. We believe that is best achieved by working together, not misleading the public about issues such as unspent federal dollars, and certainly not by creating division in our communities through an inaccurate and unnecessary blame game.

(Carl Ladd is executive director of the N.H. School Administrators Association.)

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