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Judge blocks move to eliminate program for disabled students

COLUMBUS - A Franklin County judge sided yesterday with 12 Ohio school districts, including Toledo Public Schools, as they try to keep a program alive that provides $67 million per year in federal funds to serve disabled students.

Judge Richard Frye of Common Pleas Court granted a temporary restraining order to prohibit the state from taking any action to end the program on June 30.

Toledo Public Schools and 11 other school districts sued the state on March 11, shortly after a legislative committee allowed a rule to take effect to end the program, known as 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, the federal-state program to provide medical assistance to the poor and disabled.

If the program ends June 30, Toledo Public Schools would lose an estimated $3 million in federal funding but would still be required to provide the same services to children with mental retardation or developmental disabilities.

The state does not provide any funds.

Judge Frye, a Democrat, ordered the state and school districts over the next two weeks to "collaborate in good faith" to maintain federal funding for disabled students under CAFS or "equivalent" programs, which he said state law requires.

David Young, a Columbus attorney representing the school districts, said the state couldn't appeal yesterday's ruling because it's not a "final order."

"What I expect is that the state will now begin 'good faith' negotiations to solve this problem. I really can't explain why that has not occurred before," he said.

Dennis Evans, a spokesman for the state Department of Job and Family Services, said Judge Frye's decision won't have "much of a change'' on the state's plans.

The state has cited letters from the federal government saying that funding for CAFS will end on June 30 unless there are "significant changes'' in the program.

"The funding still ends on June 30. We will continue as we have been, to meet with the school districts for a resolution," Mr. Evans said.

Eugene Sanders, superintendent of Toledo Public Schools, said yesterday that he is hopeful that discussions will lead to districts not losing any federal funding.

"I think that's at least a start in terms of addressing a key issue for us and school districts in our state," Superintendent Sanders said.

The Department of Job and Family Services has said school districts can sign up as "community providers" of Medicaid services so the flow of federal funds continues, although the total would be between 40 percent and 75 percent of what they get now under CAFS.

Mr. Sanders expressed concern that the quality of services would be "diluted.''

Contact James Drew at:

jdrew@theblade.com or

614-221-0496.

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