15 Mar Special Ed Funds Go Elsewhere

March 15, 2010

By: Shannon Mullen
Source: Asbury Park Press

Kim Vaccaro of Brick wasn’t aware that last year’s federal stimulus package included a $2.4 million grant to help her district enhance its special education program.

So it was news to her that Brick spent just half of the money on new initiatives for special education kids. The rest went to pay the health benefits of some 250 special education teachers and staff.

"That’s pretty outrageous," said Vaccaro, 45, who is president of the Brick Township Special Education Parent Teacher Association.

"That is totally unfair to our kids," said Vaccaro, whose 12-year-old son Joel has autism. "Once again, they get shortchanged."

An Asbury Park Press investigation found that school districts in Monmouth and Ocean counties used the special aid to pay legal bills, expand non-special education programs and pay benefits for non-special education teac hers.

What Brick and other districts did is perfectly legal, however. In fact, about 40 percent of the New Jersey school districts that received $360 million worth of special education grants from the stimulus spent as much as half of their windfall on general school purposes, compared to 44 percent nationwide, a survey by the U.S. General Accounting Office found.

The redirection of funds was possible thanks to a previously little-used provision in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal statute that guarantees children with disabilities the right to a "free and appropriate" education.

The law allows districts to use up to half of any annual increase in such federal aid to replace local tax dollars earmarked for special education, freeing up those funds for other uses.

Few districts have exercised this option in the past because the increases are usually paltry, but last year was a different story.

The historic $787 billion economic stimulus included an extra $11.3 billion in federal aid for special education, more than twice what districts normally would receive. The aid was in the form of IDEA Part B grants. The stimulus also included an additional $400 million in Part B preschool grants.

Districts were quick to take advantage of the wiggle room in the law to steer funds to other things besides special education. Examples:

The Freehold Regional High School District used $300,000 in redirected funds from its $2.4 million grant for employee health benefits. The district redirected another $200,000 to pay legal fees.

Middletown used $1.3 million from its $2.7 million grant to expand t he kindergartens in each of its 12 elementary schools to full-day programs.

Long Branch tapped $669,000 from its $1.3 million grant to lease new space for its alternate education program for at-risk students and hire a full-time child psychiatrist who can prescribe medication to students, if necessary. The redirected funds are subsidizing a portion of the psychiatrist’s $123,000 annual salary.

"There is a one-shot opportunity to take this money and help with general education costs," said Peter E. Genovese III, the school business administrator in Long Branch. "This is an allowable use of the funds."

Yet some districts were not too eager to tell the public what was being done with the federal money.

In their initial accounting to the Asbury Park Press, school officials in Brick and Freehold Regional didn’t volunteer the fact that they redirected funds to offset health benefit costs, or in Freehold Regional’s case, legal expenses, as well. The Press later used the grant applications that the districts filed with the New Jersey Department of Education to uncover the omission.

Brick Schools Superintendent Walter Hrycenko said the district wasn’t hiding anything and he stood by the decision to use the grant to help pay for the health benefits of special education staff. He called the $1.2 million used for that purpose "a drop in the bucket" compared to the $22 million total cost of employee benefits.

"This is helping us do other things, that’s all," he said.

Brick did budget $1.2 million from its grant to upgrade its data-tracking system, purchase equipment and supplies and fund several new staff posit ions in the special education program, including a jobs coach, a transition instructor and two administrators.

Hrycenko said the district was wary of initiating more new programs and services than it could sustain after the stimulus aid ran out, a particular concern now in light of deep cuts in state education aid.

Besides, he added, "We think we’re doing good program (in special education), the way it is."

While redirecting grant money is legal, the practice has disappointed some parents and advocates for children with disabilities. They think it wastes a golden opportunity to substantially improve the quality and capacity of special education programs, which serve six million children nationwide, including 230,000 in New Jersey.

"I think what Congress intended was for districts to spend the money as start-up funds for new programs," said Brenda Considine, coordinator of the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform. "That’s what advocates had hoped districts would do with the money."

To be sure, much of the extra aid is being used that way. Districts have hired additional special education teachers and aides, purchased new computers and various assistive devices for special education students, and bolstered teacher training.

But the widespread use of the redirection of funds option is limiting the grants’ impact, advocates say.

"This provision was meant to provide districts with some fiscal relief when Congress increased IDEA federal appropriations in a gradual and steady process over many years," argued Candace Cortiella, director of The Advocacy Institute, a nonprofit disability rights organization based in Washington, D.C. "It was never intended for a situation that was caused by the stimulus."

Not every district took advantage of the provision. Neptune and Jackson, for example, didn’t redirect any of their grant money.

"We didn’t do that," said Richard Labbe, Jackson’s special education director. "The focus was on improving our instruction so we could transition more of our special ed students toward less-restrictive (inclusive) settings, and on providing interventions for our general ed students to reduce the possibility of them becoming special ed students."

Labbe said the district expects to save "millions of dollars" over the long term by using its grant to augment teacher training in autism education, ramp up alternative reading instruction and create two new staff positions. The new staffers will focus on easing children with disabilities into regular classrooms and bringing more special educations students who are in private schools back into the district.

Parents of children with disabilities aren’t of one mind when it comes to the redirection of special education aid.

Stephanie Cartier, co-chairperson of Middletown’s special education parents advisory group, called VOICES, initially was upset about her district’s plans to redirect half its grant to a full-day kindergarten program.

After doing more research, though, she had a change of heart. Specifically, she learned that the state had approved the redirection, and that the district planned to provide the kindergarten classes with additional aides to accommodate children with disabilities.

"It’s for in clusion," reasoned Cartier, 47, whose 11-year-old daughter Katie has Down syndrome. "I don’t have a problem with it now, but it took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t have a problem with it."

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