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‘Payment plan’ suggested for special ed

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Instead of penalizing New Mexico millions of dollars for underfunding special education in recent years, federal officials should require the state to increase future funding, said members of the Albuquerque Public Schools board and Superintendent Winston Brooks.

The school board signed a letter Wednesday to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asking him to consider a “payment plan” solution to New Mexico’s ongoing dispute with the federal government over special education funding. The letter proposes New Mexico provide an additional $60 million in special education funding to local districts in the coming years to make amends.

“I fear that if a settlement cannot be reached the ones who will truly suffer are our children,” Brooks said in the letter.

In 2010, New Mexico decreased its special education funding. The U.S. Department of Education withholds money from states that don’t maintain or increase special education funding each year. The law, called “maintenance of effort,” intends to ensure states use federal money to enhance services, not to supplant state funding.

Duncan gave the state a waiver for 2010 because state revenues dropped during the recession, but denied a waiver for 2011, a year in which the state did not return special education funding to its previous high mark.

The New Mexico Public Education Department is seeking an appeal before the federal Office of Higher Education Appeals and if it loses that appeal it could appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, said PED spokesman Larry Behrens in an email.

Without a waiver for 2011, the state would lose $34 million in federal funding.

Brooks said the district’s proposed solution would spare districts further cuts without letting the state off the hook for failing to fund special education at federally required levels.

A settlement like the one outlined in the APS letter, however, would require approval from state lawmakers, federal officials and New Mexico’s Public Education Department.

Behrens said PED is skeptical.

“We would welcome the chance to meet with APS to work together on this matter, as of yet they have not requested a single opportunity to meet with us to discuss,” Behrens said in an email. “This letter leads us to believe their motivation is more political than out of concern for our students.”

During a public forum on the issue Monday, Brooks was critical of PED, but also said, “We’re not trying to point a finger. We’re trying to find solutions.”

Democratic lawmakers, APS officials and state Auditor Hector Balderas have blamed PED for the state’s troubles and said the department should have done more to raise awareness of the state’s special education issues.

PED officials have said it was the previous governor, Bill Richardson, who crafted New Mexico’s 2010 and 2011 state budgets, and that the legislature is ultimately responsible for making sure the state meets special education requirements.

The letter says APS would have received $15.6 million more in funding in 2011 and 2012 had the state funded special education at required level. Brooks said APS didn’t cut special education programs during those years but used general education dollars to keep the programs whole.

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