Iowa Department of Edu cracks down on special education funding - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Iowa Department of Education cracks down on special education funding

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

New guidelines out from the Iowa Department of Education may jeopardize how some existing special education programs throughout the state are funded.

Specifically, the department is talking about partnerships between public school districts and private facilities for students with special needs.

In Dubuque, the school district has a 25-year partnership with Hillcrest Family Services, but how that is funded is now under scrutiny.

At Hillcrest in Dubuque, 120 students attend school at the Anna B. Lawther Academy, a new building completed in 2012, Hillcrest president and CEO Gansemer said.

"We have a special education program here that serves students with severe behavioral disorder, chronic mental illness, autism," Gansemer said.

This partnership with the Dubuque Community School District costs the district more than $3 million per year, he said.

Some of those dollars cover administrative and overhead fees - what it costs, in other words, to keep the lights on and buildings heated at Hillcrest.

Iowa Department of Education spokesperson Staci Hupp, however, said that is against state law.

The department issued to school districts guidelines on Dec. 20, stating how schools can and cannot spend their special education and general education dollars when it comes to reimbursing private third-party facilities.

Districts, "cannot pay for non-educational costs and cannot pay for any facility-related costs," such as rent and utilities, the department said in its Dec. 20 letter.

"The new guidance is unclear," Gansemer said. "They talk about rent, but they're not saying who's going to pay for that, and it is complicated."

Hupp said there has been no change in policy. These newly-released guidelines are simply clarifications for school districts on existing state law.

A financial review of Hillcrest a couple of years ago revealed the facility was billing the Dubuque Community School District for building costs, something Hupp said is against state law. That helped prompt the statewide clarification.

Dubuque school superintendent Stan Rheingans said the district could not, by itself, provide the services Hillcrest is providing at any lower cost.

In other words, Gansemer said, if it's not broke, why fix it?

"In some areas, school districts and private agencies decide to operate it one way," Gansemer said. "Our issues has been, let's allow local control. If the Dubuque School District and Hillcrest think this is the appropriate way to go, let them make those decisions as long as we can be cost-effective."

Still, the school district is fleshing out a Plan B, in case the state requires the district to change how it reimburses Hillcrest for its services.

Gansemer said the newly-released guidelines could also impact other partnerships throughout the state, such as the one between the Cedar Rapids Community School District and Tanager Place.

Officials with the Iowa departments of Education and Human Services are coming to Dubuque on Jan. 6 to clarify the newly-issued guidelines and work with both Hillcrest and the school district to determine what the partnership may look like in the future.

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