In N.H., Reallocation of Special Education Money Favors Spenders

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2019

Cheryl McDaniels-Thomas had to spend $30,000 in a hurry. Starting her job as director of student support services for the Newport School District last July, she learned that the district hadn’t yet spent about 10 percent of a federal special education grant set to expire in September.

“We had to scramble to figure out what our needs were,” she said.

The district set up two sensory classrooms in Richards Elementary School, purchased a computer on wheels and a set of Chromebooks for special education students and provided some professional development opportunities for teachers.

They still didn’t quite scrape the bottom of their funds: About $7,800 of the original $300,000 grant remained when the September deadline passed.

It’s not an unusual situation. During the last fiscal period, about $500,000 in federal special education funds went unused by districts statewide, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education. Over the past 10 years, roughly $10.3 million has remained unspent.

Last week, the department announced a plan to “repurpose” the unused money back to school districts. If the proposal is approved by the U.S. Department of Special Education Programs, state education officials will redistribute the money based on the same formula they use to award the original grants. In other words, districts that had substantial amounts of unused grant money would stand to lose some of it, while districts that have spent down all or most of their grants, such as the Hanover and Mascoma Valley Districts, would potentially gain some additional funds.

“I’ve spoken to superintendents about it to try and figure out what’s going on,” said Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. “My sense is that some districts just administratively are managing those grants a little better than others.”

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), federal special education grants are awarded to states using a formula based on prior funding, population and poverty data. Using a similar formula, the state then awards grants to districts, who can draw them down during a 27-month period, after which time the state Department of Education retains any remaining money.

During the 2016-17 fiscal period, area schools varied widely in their management of IDEA grants. The Kearsarge Regional School District spent all of its IDEA money, the Mascoma Valley Regional School District spent all but about $200 and the Hanover School District spent all but about $300. In the Lebanon School District, about $6,200 reverted back to the state. And in Claremont, $25,600 remained unspent. Due to a calculation error, the state’s initial report said that Claremont had $88,000 remaining. 

Cory LeClair, assistant superintendent for the Claremont School District, said the district manages all of its grants as precisely as possible and that it just passed a federal audit with apparent flying colors. “The initial report was very positive ... and indicated that we are spending our federal dollars appropriately,” LeClair said.

Nevertheless, LeClair and other district administrators say that planning for special education expenditures is a complicated guessing game and that they never leave funds untapped out of ignorance.

“We plan the use of IDEA funds as carefully and as strategically as we can to support our staff, students and families,” Lebanon School District Superintendent Joanne Roberts wrote in an email. “It is important to keep in mind that the key to special education supports and services is that they are ‘individualized’— based on the unique educational needs of each student. Determining a year or more in advance the exact fiscal amount required to support the educational needs of our students can be challenging.”

Along with ever-shifting special education needs, staffing issues can throw a wrench in budgeting. A shortage of qualified special education professionals forces some districts to leave positions unfilled, and, as was the case in Newport this year, administrative turnover can affect budget oversight.

In Claremont, staffing changes were also the main reason that funds weren’t spent down to zero, LeClair said. Staff changes that occur near the end of the draw period are especially problematic because IDEA money has to benefit students within the period it’s spent. In other words, schools can’t buy textbooks with leftover money and set them aside for the following year or sign up for a professional development opportunity that won’t occur until after the grant is closed.

Expenditures also have to be approved by the state, McDaniels-Thomas said, creating additional time pressures. Some recent changes in personnel at the state meant that obtaining approval took a little extra time as well, she said.

“Some of the things that we had tried to do, we just couldn’t get them done,” she said.

Edelblut said he expects the federal government to rule on the state’s proposal later this month and does not anticipate that the government shutdown will affect the timetable. If the proposal is approved, the Department of Education will devise a multi-year plan for awarding the unused funds, after which any leftover money will go back to the federal government. In the future, Edelblut said, the state may work with schools more closely to help them manage their special education funds and avoid the need to repurpose the money.

“What we’re going to basically do is have some of the districts that are really good at managing these grants help provide guidance to the districts that aren’t,” he said.

The Department of Education is also working on creating a better record-keeping system for IDEA funds. In the past, once the grants were closed, Edelblut said, the department could not view them at the district level to keep track of which districts were leaving large sums of money on the table.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com and 603-727-3268.