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Florida Keys News
Friday, August 8, 2014
District works on ESE audit issue

The School District plans to spend $1,330,629 over three years on Exceptional Student Education (ESE) to resolve the Maintenance of Effort audit finding that appeared on the School District's most recent audit.

The money will come out of the 2013-14 fiscal year budget, and be spent purchasing equipment for physically disabled students, and correcting imbalances to provide a more equitable distribution of resources between schools.

The finding was the most serious in the audit, and reflects a problem that stretched back years to the reign of a former superintendent of schools.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act or IDEA, aka Public Law 94-142, is the nation's federal special education law that ensures public schools serve the educational needs of students with disabilities. Before 1975, only one out of five children with disabilities was able to attend public schools. Many states had laws that explicitly excluded children with certain types of disabilities from attending public school.

Fast forward to 2014, Maintenance of Effort (MOE) is the requirement that ensures school district do not cut services to students with disabilities.

"The reason school districts get into trouble with this is because each district applies for federal dollars so there is a huge temptation to move district ESE expenses on to the ESE grant," said district Director of Exceptional Student Education and Student Services Lesley Salinero. "It's kind of a complicated thing. I'm working with two pots of money for ESE, one federal grant dollars, and the other are ESE-specific dollars provided by the district. The issue was with the district's ESE money. It was moved around, diverted from ESE, when positions were cut, under [former Superintendent] Jesus Jara, which impacted the amount money that went to kids in schools with special needs. The audit finding was that they had cut down the ESE district funds too low and failed to 'maintain the required effort.'"

The oversight was reflected in the Florida Auditor General's most recent audit of the School District, which current Superintendent Mark Porter and his Executive Director of Finance and Performance, Jim Drake, are anxious to dispense with.

"With that finding, the district is required to restore the funding to support special needs students in the schools," Salinero said. "I did alert Superintendent Porter to this issue when he was brought on board, and he has been very responsive toward trying to correct the problem."

Now all the district needs is for the head of ESE for the state, Monica Verra-Tirado, to approve the plan.

"We didn't want to apply all that money in one year," Salinero said. "I feel pretty confident that the state will allow us to proceed. We've already got the go-ahead from the Florida Auditor General."

Salinero has served as the point person for Jim Drake on the issue.

"My concern and the superintendent's concern is to be able to spend the money wisely," Drake said. "But at the same time, our intent is to resolve the audit finding as expeditiously as possible."

The ESE students receive different additional Full Time Equivalent (FTE) funds depending not heir disability. However, the vast majority receive the exact same FTE as non-disabled peers, "and not a penny more," Salinero said.

Even a severely disabled student does not generate enough funding to cover the expenses of services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and the like. The federal government has at the most only funded PL 94-142 at a rate of 45 percent. The federal money is a grant of approximately $1.8 million per year, which is written by Salinero on behalf of the School District.

"We have about 1,662 students in ESE, including some 350 gifted kids," Salinero said. "In a sense, we're the largest school in the district."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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