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Published: 3/12/2005

TPS, 11 others sue state over funds for disabled

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Toledo Public Schools and 11 other school districts sued the state yesterday, seeking to prevent the end of a program that provides $67 million per year in federal funds to serve disabled students.

The lawsuit filed in Franklin County Common Pleas Court asks a judge to stop the state from ending the program June 30.

An estimated 270 Ohio school districts receive federal funds under the Community Alternative Funding System, or CAFS.

The 13-year-old program provides services including speech pathology, nursing, physical therapy, and transportation for disabled children and adults who qualify for Medicaid. It is the federal-state program to provide medical assistance for the poor and disabled.

If the program ends June 30, Toledo Public Schools would lose an estimated $3 million in federal funding, but still be required to provide the same services to children with mental retardation or development disabilities. Toledo Public Schools has 6,189 students identified under federal law as disabled.

The Lucas County Board of Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities, which was not part of the lawsuit, would lose $10 million a year, or nearly 25 percent of its total revenue, agency spokesman London Mitchell said.

Officials of the state Department of Job and Family Services told a legislative committee at two meetings this week that the federal government has said for 18 months that Ohio is failing to comply with the program's mandates, including that the Medicaid program provide the same benefits throughout the state.

"What we maintain is [federal officials] have called the state to come into compliance," said Thom Billau, director of student services for Toledo Public Schools. "The program should not end."

The lawsuit alleges that the state Department of Job and Family Services does not have authority to halt the program.

Last week, the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, which consists of 10 lawmakers, allowed a rule to take effect to "sunset" the program on June 30.

"CAFS was created by a statute and that statute can only be repealed by the General Assembly," said David Young, a Columbus attorney representing the school districts.

Mr. Young said the end of the CAFS program would jeopardize Ohio's requirement under federal law to screen and provide treatment to all Medicaid-eligible children under the age of 21.

"These services are routinely provided in a school setting," he said.

Jon Allen, a spokesman for the Department of Job and Family Services, said last night that the state's authority to operate CAFS is "pending available funding," and the federal government has said it will end June 30 unless there are "significant changes" in the program.

Mr. Allen said the state will forward any proposals from education groups on a new program to the federal government, but that could take 18 months to gain approval.

The state has proposed that in the interim, school districts can sign up as "community providers" of Medicaid services, Mr. Allen said.

That would continue the flow of federal reimbursement dollars, although the total would be between 40 percent and 75 percent of what they get under CAFS, Mr. Allen said.

The state Department of Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities has pledged to create an alternative program to serve disabled adults.

The state does not provide any funds for the CAFS program. The federal government picks up 60 percent of the $330 million annual program, with county boards of mental retardation and developmental disabilities and school districts picking up the rest.

The Department of Job and Family Services administers the federal funds, and the Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities administers the CAFS program.

In addition to Toledo Public Schools, the other school district plaintiffs are Akron, Bedford, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, Columbus, Lakewood, Lorain, Parma, and the Tri-County Educational Service Center in Wooster.

Contact James Drew at:

jdrew@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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