CONCORD — Jane Bergeron-Beaulieu, head of the state’s association of special education administrators, can’t say exactly why $10 million in special education funding went unspent, but she has some theories — turnover, workforce shortage, increasing complexity among them. It certainly wasn’t lack of need.

The gap between special education mandates and special education funding is large, and puts extreme pressure on many districts.

“It’s a significant dynamic, and really puts our districts in a hard place,” she said, “especially those districts that have a very tight budget.”

The N.H. Department of Education recently announced that over the past decade New Hampshire school districts have left millions of dollars on the table, failing to draw down funds from approved federal grants.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut is trying to work out a deal with the U.S. Department of Education to “repurpose” the money for special needs programs in Granite State schools before it reverts to the federal treasury.

“I have had the opportunity to chat about this with many of the members of our association,” said Bergeron-Beaulieu. “We represent more than 250 leaders of special education throughout all districts in New Hampshire, and there are a variety of factors that have contributed to this.”

One of them is turnover. Nineteen special education administrators retired last year, and an equal number will retire this year, she said. Filling the positions has grown more challenging over the years.

“The jobs are very, very difficult,” she said. “In the world of special ed, administrators are constantly dealing with a lot of legal implications, a lot of conflict. It’s high stress much of the time.”

Weakened support

The support network for special education administrators has also seen high turnover, both at the state and local level, according to Bergeron-Beaulieu.

“All these folks are involved in oversight of all grants,” she said. “Couple staff turnover with a workforce shortage, and that’s just one of the factors that could explain how this came to happen.”

Three years ago, the Department of Education began issuing multi-year grants instead of closing down a grant at year end and rolling the money into the next year.

“I think that was a learning curve for folks,” she said. “One of the other factors contributing to the unspent money was a possible lack of guidance and continued support for our 19 new folks. If we beefed up on that, we may be in a better place.”

The good news is that the state won’t lose the money if Edleblut is successful in negotiations with federal officials over a plan to “repurpose” the funds before they revert to the federal treasury.

Ideas for the money

The money would be re-allocated to districts based on the number of children with individual education programs, or IEPs, and the number eligible for subsidized school lunch.

“We are looking forward to being at the table for that conversation,” said Bergeron-Beaulieu.

“Right now in New Hampshire, we are seeing a lot of children and youth faced with mental health challenges. We’re seeing more and more kids with emotional challenges, behavioral challenges, which leads us to need more support, more training.”

“If some of the monies could be directed toward continued program development in our schools for students with disabilities along with sustained, high-quality professional learning opportunities for all educators, our students would benefit greatly.”

Joan Izen heads a grant-funded program at the Southeast Regional Education Center in Bedford that promotes support programs for young children with disabilities and their families. Like many others involved in the field, she has seen the demand increase significantly in recent years.

“What we have seen over the past several years is a real increase in children with very challenging behaviors due to trauma,” she said. “Some of that can be tied to the opioid situation, some of it is just a lot of stress in young families.”

That increase in demand has not been met by a corresponding increase in special education funding, but that could change if a bill proposed by Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat, becomes law.

Ending the downshift

That bill, still in the drafting stage, would prohibit the state from “downshifting” extraordinary special education costs to local districts.

According to statute, a school reaches extraordinary costs for a student when the expense for that student is at least 3.5 times higher than the average cost per student, now about $15,000 a year statewide.

The state is supposed cover 80 to 100 percent of those extraordinary costs, but often fails to appropriate enough money, pays out on a pro-rated basis, and falls short of paying what the district had budgeted for.

Kahn’s bill, if enacted into law, would require the state to fund its full obligation.

“This legislation removes the downshifting of costs and assures the 80 percent funding,” he said.

“And it suggests in the future we should look for another way, because if we really are aiming to underwrite a school district for extraordinary special education costs, then we shouldn’t put a parent and a child in conflict with the school district and its taxpayers for the burden of educating a child.”