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SC schools chief asks court to intercede in squabble over fine

COLUMBIA (AP) — South Carolina’s schools chief is asking a federal court to suspend a $36 million penalty against the state and review an order by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Superintendent Mick Zais has asked the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review Duncan’s decision last month to reject their efforts to avoid the penalty. Zais had asked Duncan for a hearing to challenge the federal agency’s punishment of the state for special education spending cuts during and after the Great Recession.

Duncan’s dismissal means that $36 million would essentially be taken off the top of whatever the state is otherwise slated to receive through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Zais ultimately hopes the court orders the federal agency to hold a hearing and, in the meantime, suspend the cut, which is slated to start in October.

“We’re still trying to get them to hear the appeal,” said Zais spokesman Jay Ragley.

The Senate’s budget proposal for 2012-13 includes $36 million to cover the cut. The House and Senate are still trying to agree to a compromise on the state spending plan. The state’s fiscal year starts July 1.

If the cut goes through, “the inevitable result will be a reduction in the quality and amount of services to students with disabilities,” reads the motion for a stay, signed Monday. “The very students who the IDEA was enacted to protect … and access to the special education and related services necessary” will be negatively affected.

The federal law bars states from spending less money on special education from one year to the next, though states can apply for an exemption.

The $36 million punishment is what’s left from an initial threat last June to reduce the state’s allotment by $111.5 million because the Legislature didn’t allocate enough toward special education over the previous three years, due to budget cuts during and following the Great Recession.

Other amounts were forgiven, but the remaining cut stems from not spending enough in the 2009-10 school year.

The partial penalty was initially set to start last October. But the federal agency delayed the punishment by a year.

Zais, a Republican who took the agency’s helm in January 2011, appealed the partial penalty in August 2011 and asked for a hearing. He also asked for another one-year delay pending a final decision. But federal officials denied that request in April, noting it gave the delay precisely so the state could prepare for the loss. Duncan then dismissed the case in a May 22 order.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education did not immediately return a request for comment.

When the initial decision came down last June, Zais said, there was nothing he or the Legislature could do to remedy spending in previous fiscal years. He said the back-and-forth to stop the cut is part of his job.

“But I suspect it’s very frustrating for parents and students in limbo wondering if the federal government will provide the support promised for children with disabilities this year and going forward,” he said. “It’s an issue that affects everybody in the state. If the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t provide the funds, taxpayers will have to make up the difference.”

The state spends $410 million on nearly 100,000 public school students in South Carolina with various disabilities — 14 percent of the entire student population, according to the education agency. Local districts provide additional funding.

The cut comes from the $183 million the state would otherwise receive this year from the federal government.

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