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NHCS community can weigh in on plan to spend federal dollars on children with disabilities

From the New Hanover County Schools special education page.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Project is amended yearly, and New Hanover County Schools is asking the public to weigh in on the programs slated to be funded with this federal money for the next school year.

Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam said parents or caregivers of a child with a disability or a community stakeholder in exceptional children (EC) services can give feedback on these plans.

“So they can look at the list of professional development that we plan to use for our contracted services or contracted professional development," she said. "And they can weigh in and say, ‘I disagree with this particular professional development; I'd rather see this in the plan, or I don't see that you've listed this. Is this something that's going to be provided?’”

Varnam said they take that feedback and amend the plan based on what they’ve heard from the community before it’s sent to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, then the U.S. Department of Education.

There are two plans—one outlines programs for K-12 schools and the other for pre-K students.

Varnam said they typically use this funding for EC teaching assistants and programming contracts for these students.

In response to how this federal funding will affect the district’s budget shortfall, Varnam said this money is based on per child count, not local and state budget decisions.

According to the plan’s estimate for next school year, the district anticipates having 3,590 students with disabilities on an individualized education plan (IEP). As of December, about 3,451 of these students constitute about 13% of NHCS’s 25,946 student population.

NHCS expects to spend state (mainly) and local funds worth $31.4 million on these students. However, the district anticipates spending $470 less per student from these funds combined.

The anticipated federal budget for next year, including IDEA funding, is $13.4 million. However, Varnam has said that the federal government isn’t fully funding this program, something she’d like to see changed.

Varnam said the district is basically guaranteed federal funding based on these student numbers; that is, unless they are under sanction, which the school system has been in the past for disproportionately suspending students of color with disabilities.

Because of this sanction, NHCS is still losing about $1 million yearly in federal funding for EC students, but the money is being redirected within the district to fix the problem. For example, in 2024, they spent $413,960 on contracted services with the Center for Pediatrics, Communities in Schools, and Learning Perspectives, Incorporated. In prior years, they spent the money on staffing, such as school psychologists and instructional support staff.

As for the community addressing these issues with disproportionality and a newer issue of misidentifying students of color with an emotional disability, Varnam said that feedback is needed for a separate plan, not for IDEA.

“We’re reestablishing strategies to address the root cause of disproportionality, whether in discipline or identification,” she said. “Again, the funding for the disproportionality sanction has already been diverted, and that part is not included in this plan. This IDEA narrative tells you exactly what we will be doing with the federal money that complements our state and local money in serving students who have disabilities and require IEPs.”

The open comment period for the IDEA plan is Monday, May 20, until Friday, May 24. If you have further questions on this proposal, call the Office of Special Education and Related Services at 910-254-4454.

Residents can view the document at the Spencer Building, 1802 South 15th Street, or view and provide feedback online on the NHCS IDEA plan.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR