Audit: Funding for New Mexico special education short more than $100M

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) – New Mexico saw a shortfall of more than $100 million in special education funding for three years, and that shortfall put the state at risk of losing important federal funding, the New Mexico State Auditor’s office announced Wednesday.

An independent accounting firm found the shortfall in special education funding from July 2009 to June 2012 during the audit, according to the office. Those numbers were based on New Mexico Public Education Department’s calculations, the office said.

The announcement was just the latest in the long dispute over special education funding in New Mexico and comes at a time when Republican Gov. Susana Martinez push through record education spending this year. The state’s Public Education Department is currently in a legal dispute with the U.S. Department of Education over to how to calculate New Mexico’s special education funding.

But auditor Tim Keller said the special education shortfall is another piece of system-wide challenges that plague the state’s educational system.

“This report highlights serious shortcomings in our state’s ability to serve special education students, who are some of the most vulnerable participants in our education system and deserve better,” Keller said. “We have made recommendations to the Public Education Department to fix the systemic issues that were revealed.”

Public Education Department spokesman Robert McEntyre said the special education funding problems began under former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat.

“We appreciate Tim Keller’s willingness to admit that the Richardson-era budgets he voted for left special education underfunded,” McEntyre said. “Since Governor Martinez has taken office, special education funding has increased every year.”

Keller, then a state senator, voted for the 2010 budget that cut special education funding by around $47 million.

The auditor’s office said state education officials “checked the box” on federal reporting, saying the state had met or exceeded required special education funding levels in 2010, 2011 and 2012. However, the audit said, “The positive assurances were based on uncertain calculation methodology and were not ultimately accurate.”

The U.S. Department of Education withholds money from states that don’t maintain or increase their own special education funding each year.

A federal judge ruled in May 2014 that that state did not have the right to reduce its special education funding in 2011.

The federal department gave New Mexico a waiver for 2010 because of the economic downturn. But federal officials told the state education officials they would deny a waiver for 2011.

Former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, drafted the state’s 2010 and 2011 budgets, and it was approved by the then-Democratic controlled Legislature.

Former State Auditor Hector Balderas said in 2013 that state education officials say they learned of the possible federal funding loss in February 2011, but lawmakers didn’t become aware of it until the 2013 legislative session.

But New Mexico Public Education Department officials said state lawmakers were warning about the possible loss of federal special education funding back in 2010 and 2011.

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