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State could lose millions in school funding

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U.S. Department of Education requirements violated

The Associated Press
SANTA FE — Millions of dollars of federal money for special-education programs in New Mexico is at risk because the state hasn’t met all of Washington’s requirements to qualify for the funding.
Public Education Department officials told lawmakers Wednesday the federal government might withhold $43 million and the state would need to increase its spending by that amount over one or two years to prevent cuts for local school districts. There had been preliminary estimates that up to $93 million could be at risk.
At issue are requirements by the U.S. Department of Education for states not to cut their spending for services for special education students. The standards are to prevent states from trimming their budgets and using federal money to offset the reductions.
New Mexico ran afoul of those requirements when the economy soured and lawmakers cut state aid to public schools to help balance the budget in 2011.
State Public Education Deputy Secretary Paul Aguilar said the state is asking the federal government to waive its funding requirements because of the state’s budget problems in those years. If the waiver is granted, the state won’t need to dip into its cash reserves to find $43 million.
Aguilar told the Senate Finance Committee that other states face similar special education funding problems and there’s legislation in Congress to ensure a state’s annual allocation of federal aid isn’t permanently reduced in future years because of the recent budget problems.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that New Mexico was notified by the U.S. Department of Education of the special education funding problem in the fall of 2011, and the two parties agreed the state should request a waiver the following spring.
The state filed its request in August 2012 and it was later amended. Federal officials notified the state in December that it may not get the waiver, but New Mexico can appeal.
The state had reduced its spending on special education by more than $15 million in 2010 and $28 million in 2011.
Lawmakers are unhappy they weren’t told earlier about the funding dispute and concerned that it could affect the state budget for public schools.
Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Tucumcari, said the federal spending requirements are unreasonable because states can’t guarantee they will spend the same amount of money every year on special education. The need for special education services in schools can vary from year to year.