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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 11, 2001

Lawmakers say special-ed surplus raises doubts

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Months after asking the Legislature for millions of dollars in emergency aid, the state Department of Education has ended up with $17.5 million in unspent special-education money.

The surplus puzzles legislators and others who heard education officials insist during the legislative session in the spring that the department would run out of money unless it was given an emergency injection of $41 million.

Lawmakers already are skeptical of the high costs associated with the so-called Felix consent decree, a federal court order that requires improved mental health and education services for students with physical and mental disabilities. The Legislature has established a joint investigative committee to look into how the special education money is being spent.

Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu said the department wound up with unspent money because the initial budget included salaries for special-education teachers and other positions that were never filled. He also said the department did not pay Columbus Educational Corp. as much as anticipated for the recruitment of qualified special-ed teachers because Columbus was not able to recruit as many teachers as promised.

As of last month, there were more than 130 special education vacancies.

"We had fully budgeted for people we were supposed to be looking for," LeMahieu said. "We had to stick to full budgeting in order to be able to make a good-faith representation to the (federal) court that we were fully prepared and fully serious about meeting those obligations.

"Everybody in the system is working really hard to stay within budget. It doesn't necessarily speak to something horribly wrong when in fact they've succeeded that."

That the department wasn't able to spend all the money it was given will likely create more friction between the Department of Education and the Legislature and offer validation to legislators who were criticized for scrutinizing the special-education requests.

"I think that as a result the Legislature will probably give very little deference to the department's justification for their funding requests, and the department needs to be prepared for very serious justification in the future," said Rep. Scott Saiki, D-20th (Kapahulu, Mo'ili'ili).

The department originally asked the Legislature for an emergency appropriation of $41.3 million this year for special-education costs, and later agreed to reduce that request to $33.4 million. The Legislature trimmed that request again to $27.9 million before finally giving the department the money in the spring.

But when the fiscal year ended June 30, the department had $17.5 million left over in unspent special education funds. About $8.3 million of that will be sent back to the state general treasury.

Saiki and Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, who both head the joint House-Senate Felix investigative committee, said the amount for the Columbus contract had already been reduced when the department sought appropriations for it.

Hanabusa, D-21st (Kalaeloa, Makaha), said the leftover money, in addition to the already heightened awareness of Felix costs, will motivate lawmakers to carefully review budget requests from the department. "I think they will be scrutinized like they never were before," she said. "We're not going to accept the department's word anymore. They're going to have to come up with the justification.

"After we got through with the session, what we were accused of was showing no commitment to special ed because we didn't give them all the money they wanted. And they ended up with a surplus. A substantial surplus."

Board of Education member Donna Ikeda also said she was concerned about the extra money and that she hasn't yet received information from the department justifying it.

"I think it makes us look bad when we've gone in with emergency funding requests of $40 million and then that's been lowered and then we show an $8 million lapse," said Ikeda, a former chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The department had planned to ask the Legislature for an additional $42 million for the 2003 fiscal year, including $16 million for special education. But that figure might be lowered in the wake of the state's economic crisis following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Board of Education second vice-chairwoman Karen Knudsen.

Knudsen said she was hopeful lawmakers would review each budget request on its own merits, but added: "With the timing, with the investigation, with the state facing financial difficulty, anything like this doesn't help. The appearance is not good."

You can reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.