CONCORD — Over the past decade, New Hampshire school districts have left unspent more than $10 million in federal aid for special education, at a time when many school administrators complain that the crushing costs of special needs programs are challenging local budgets.
Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut is trying to work out a deal with the U.S. Department of Education to keep the money for special-needs programs in Granite State schools before it reverts to the federal treasury.
“The money is sitting available in a federal appropriation for us to draw down and use, and we haven’t drawn it down,” says Edelblut, who discovered the available cash in a review of accounts.
The lack of spending is certainly not due to any lack of need, he said. “Since we typically are underfunded in our state special education funding, it’s certainly not because there’s not enough activity going on. But there is no mechanism for me to release these old funds. That’s the conversation we are having now with the feds.”
If the money is released, it would be allocated to local school districts over the next four years, based on the same criteria as the original grants: number of children with individualized education programs (IEPs) and number of children receiving free or reduced lunch.
The Department of Education could not provide data on which school districts left money on the table, except for the most recent school year, 2016-2017.
In that year, the school districts collectively left $478,000 in K-12 special ed funding unspent, and $70,000 in special ed funding for preschool.
One of the biggest surpluses on a per-capita basis came from Hooksett, where $45,689 was unspent from an allocation of $386,270, nearly 12 percent. Another $7,900 in federal funding for pre-school special needs also went unused, out of $15,533 available.
Marge Polak, assistant superintendent for SAU 15, which includes Hooksett, Auburn and Candia, attributed the surplus to a technology project that was not delivered on time.
“The money was originally earmarked for technology — both student and classroom technology,” she said, “and though the vendor assured delivery before the end of the grant, that did not happen.”
Calls placed to other school districts regarding their surplus accounts were not returned, although one superintendent who declined to be quoted speculated that the workforce shortage could be a contributing factor.
There are many funded but unfilled positions for paraprofessionals, aides, drivers and a range of other jobs associated with special needs programs. The money is also used to pay for out-of-district services.
“Yearly, we hear of the high costs districts incur to properly support special education students,” said Edelblut. “Some districts manage funds very closely and fully use all available grant funds. Others, it appears, provide less oversight of grant funds, resulting in unused grant fund allocations. In this environment, we are surprised that districts have not taken advantage of available federal grants.”
Gov. Chris Sununu said he too was surprised that all the funding has not been used, but added, “I am confident that, upon approval by the federal government, the department’s plan will ensure greater opportunity for our students going forward.”
The federal government is expected to rule on the request later this month.
Other school districts with large unspent balances include:
Nashua, where nearly $50,000 was unspent in the 2016-17 school year, equal to about 1.5 percent of the total grant for that district.
Colebrook left $22,403 unspent from grants amounting to $82,569, or 27 percent.
Hampstead left $26,874 or 7.6 percent unspent.
Barnstead’s balance was $11,273, or 7.9 percent.
A complete list of school districts and their unspent special education balances is available at unionleader.com
According to the Department of Education, the state receives about $43 million a year from the federal government to support students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Act.