The U.S. Department of Education is allowing New Hampshire to keep $10 million in unspent federal special education funds - called IDEA grants - but, it is requiring the N.H. education department to adjust how it sends these funds to towns in the future.
The $10 million comes from unspent IDEA grants that have accumulated over the last decade, because some school districts didn't use their allotted funds.
Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut says, rather than return the money back to the federal government, the state will redistribute it and give districts until September 2020 to spend it.
“It could be for special education classes focused on a specific weakness that a student might have, and lots of applications depending on the individual students' needs,” he said.
But the negotiations with federal officials to keep $10 million also revealed a math problem: the state DOE has been miscalculating towns’ IDEA grant appropriations for over a decade.
Towns get IDEA grants based on student population, including in their private and charter schools. But federal officials say the N.H. department hasn’t counted these kids accurately for at least 12 years, possibly since 1997. This miscalculation means some cities, including Manchester, Concord, Dover, and Derry, lost out on hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Edelblut says the department believed it was following the guidelines, because federal officials routinely gave it positive audits.
“The details of the calculations are the responsibility of the state,” explained Laurie VanderPloeg, the director for the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. DOE. “And the state has the discretion in IDEA to use the best data available to them.”
“Once they gave us new guidance, we followed that guidance,” Edelblut explained.
Under the new calculations, most towns will see a small percentage decrease in their IDEA funds next year, while some cities and towns with private and public schools will see increases. The state is covering the cost of the difference this year, to give schools losing money time to adjust to their new amounts.
OSEP is also requiring New Hampshire to offer improved training to districts to help them stay on top of paperwork and fully spend their IDEA funds within 27 months of receiving them.