State official: BOCES may be able to use stimulus money

Group plans to use funds to cover overspending

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— A Colorado Department of Education official said the Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services’ proposed use of federal stimulus funding is allowable by law.

BOCES Executive Director Jane Toothaker has proposed, with support of BOCES’ six member districts, using Individuals with Disabilities Education Act stimulus funding to make up for its overspending its 2008-09 budget by nearly $317,000.

The stimulus funding was intended to help school districts exceed “maintenance of effort.” That federal requirement stipulates that programs and services for children with disabilities remain at or exceed the level provided the previous year.

Charm Paulmeno, the Edu­cation Department’s director of student support services, said that stimulus funding could be used for “special education services and supports for students with disabilities,” which BOCES has proposed to do. The department still is evaluating the application for the funds and hasn’t officially approved the proposal.

It’s unclear whether BOCES can use the money to cover overspending in a previous year’s budget. Asked whether it was acceptable to use stimulus money to cover a deficit, Paulmeno said she couldn’t answer.

“All I can tell you is if it’s an allowable use of those funds, it’s allowable,” she said. “I don’t know why they’re in that situation. That’s certainly not my area of expertise.”

BOCES’ six member districts learned in September that BOCES overspent its 2008-09 budget and needed to increase assessments for this year’s services by more than $481,000. BOCES initially had asked the districts to pick up the tab.

That created a problem for districts, which already had set their budgets — pending final approval in January — based on assessments presented in May for this year’s services.

BOCES is a cooperative agency that provides state-mandated special education services to six school districts in Northwest Colorado, including Steamboat Springs, Hayden and South Routt. It also provides other services, such as the operation of the South Routt’s preschool.

BOCES also owes the districts $777,000 in federal title program funding. That funding flows through the state to the districts. Because BOCES had not disbursed that funding, the state Education Department took away its ability to do so for the 2009-10 school year, according to a letter to Toothaker last week. BOCES has said it will pay the districts once it receives this year’s revised assessments, which were presented at the Oct. 28 board meeting.

The Nov. 4 letter stated that “assisting individual districts with the fiscal management” of the federal funds would lead to more timely reimbursements this year after BOCES’ “failure” to reimburse districts last year.

In the letter, Education Department Deputy Commis­sioner Robert K. Hammond said an evaluation of whether BOCES would be allowed to resume disbursing that federal funding would be made April 30.

“This is highly unusual,” said Trish Boland, who works in federal program administration for the Education Department. She added that although BOCES was relieved of a responsibility, the action was taken primarily to ensure that districts get their federal title funding sooner this year.

She said to her knowledge, no other BOCES in Colorado is having similar financial problems. In her seven years with the Education Department, Boland said hadn’t heard of a BOCES being stripped of its ability to disburse federal funding.

Boland, who has spent the past two days with the six member districts to assist them with the transition to receiving their own funding, said she doubted there would be any repercussions for other BOCES in the state.

Boland said the state conducted a fiscal review of the local BOCES three years ago. Since then, the yearly audits BOCES has submitted to the Education Department didn’t reveal that anything was wrong.

Vody Herrmann, the public school financing assistant commissioner for the Education Department, said the department is reviewing BOCES federal program management. The agency also is reviewing audited financial reports compared with what BOCES provided the past three years.

She also said that because the district superintendents and boards of directors govern each BOCES, a solution to the problem needs to be a local one.

The district superintendents have asked to receive monthly financial reports for their review and to approve the annual budget before it’s submitted to the board. Some districts, including Routt County’s, also have indicated that they’ll consider providing some of their own programming instead of going through BOCES.

Steamboat Superintendent Shalee Cunningham has said the district will prepare by March a list of BOCES programs it will opt out of and will instead provide itself during the 2010-11 school year.

Herrmann said although there has to be a local solution, the Education Department still will monitor BOCES.

“We’ll watch them a little closer,” she said.

The BOCES board meets at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Babson-Carpenter Career and Technical Education Center in Hayden.

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