The Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District is considering legal action against the state over what it considers inappropriate rejection of funding requests for intensive-needs special education students.
The Ketchikan School Board heard an update on the issue during Wednesday’s board meeting. Superintendent Robert Boyle is unhappy with a recent letter from the state Department of Education and Early Development.
“We got some surprise notice from special services out of the Department of Education that they were not funding two of our IEPs that we had previously received information that they would,” he told the board. “I’ve checked into this statewide; it seems to be a phenomenon.”
Boyle said similar funding rejections happened recently at the Kodiak, Sitka, Kenai and Mat-Su school districts, and he’s heard that Sitka might sue.
The reduction of about $150,000 is a concern to Boyle, and he said the state’s decision is wrong. He filed a request for a formal hearing, and believes the district will recover that funding.
School Board Member Stephen Bradford speculated that the state Department of Education hopes for backlash from school districts that will get the attention of the Legislature.
Boyle further speculated that it’s an attempt by the state to make up for budget cuts.
“It has the appearance of a $20 million effort to reduce the budget at the state level by the Department of Education,” he said. “That’s the number of IEPs that have been rejected, which seems to match the amount of money that was denied them by the legislators.”
Don Enoch, the special education coordinator for the state Department of Education, has a response.
“Nope,” he said.
“I can tell you that the reviews for intensive funding are submitted by all school districts and reviewed by a three-person panel. If the paperwork meets the requirements, the student qualifies.”
Enoch said the special education department doesn’t have anything to do with finances.
“We do the reviews. Once they qualify, we notify finance which ones qualified and which ones didn’t,” he said. “And frankly, that’s the way it should be, We shouldn’t be thinking about the money. We should be thinking about does this student qualify or not.”
Talking to KRBD the morning after the meeting, Boyle said the district might take legal action.
“The Department of Ed seems to be a little, in our opinion, arbitrary, in how they’re deciding these issues,” he said. “We may want to pursue it through legal recourse, because we’re that confident in being correct.”
While the Ketchikan School District is sure its applications were complete, Enoch said there are some typical paperwork problems that result in rejection of an application.
“One misconception is … thinking that if a student has an aide with them all day, they must be intensive,” he said, as an example, only. “Several students could have aides with them all day and not meet the requirements in the regulations.”
In a memo to the Ketchikan School Board, Business Manager Matthew Groves writes that the district had been notified in March that the two students would be funded. Then in May, the state determined they were not eligible.
Enoch disputes that, and said his department wouldn’t notify districts of qualifications and then take it away.
“We send out a letter that’s very specific, that said whether the students they have are qualified or not, and then give the districts 30 days to submit additional information,” he said.
If the district in question can provide more proof within that time frame that shows a student qualifies, he said the department notifies them, again in writing, of that change.
The Ketchikan School Board approved budget revisions to reflect the unexpected reduction in intensive funding. The district will make up for it through unspent money that would have been carried over into the next school year.
Also Wednesday, the Ketchikan School Board approved an approximately $95,000 purchase of Apple-brand laptops for Schoenbar Middle School students. The board also opted to cancel its second meeting this month, and change next month’s meeting to July 17.
The School Board traditionally changes its summer meeting schedule to once a month.