A better way? Schools ponder changes to special-education co-ops
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org April 26, 2013 11:16PM
Paraprofessional Nicole McKay (right) swings a student in the sensory room at Spencer Pointe Primary School Tuesday, April 23, 2013, in New Lenox. The school district will take over its own special education programs beginning with the 2014-2015 school year. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Who’s paying what
A breakdown of how District 843 co-op is funded:
SD 114: 8 percent ($1.8M)
SD 122: 14 percent ($3.4M)
SD 157C: 7 percent ($1.6M)
SD 159: 14 percent ($3.2M)
SD 161: 17 percent ($4.1M)
SD 210: 14 percent ($3.3M)
Nonmembers: 4 percent ($900,000)
State funding: 6 percent ($1.3M)
Federal funding: 16 percent ($3.9M)
Source: District 843
Updated: May 29, 2013 6:01AM
Throughout its 40-year history, the Lincoln-Way Area Special Education District 843 co-op has adapted to meet the changing needs of its students and its six member school districts.
But in what some see as a new trend, New Lenox School District 122 has announced its desire to withdraw from the co-op and run its own programs and services.
It is a move that will shake things up a bit as the co-op downsizes and reinvents itself, but education leaders hope it will be a positive change for all.
“It’s the natural evolution of the growth in our area,” District 122 Supt. Mike Sass said. “When you hit a certain size, you can do it more effectively on your own.”
Conversely, a different co-op that includes Oak Lawn and Evergreen Park high schools suits them fine, and there’s no talk among those schools of disbanding or withdrawing. Officials there say it’s cost-effective to work together.
Five elementary school districts and Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 comprise the District 843 co-op. The five elementary districts are Manhattan 114, New Lenox 122, Frankfort 157C, Mokena 159 and Summit Hill 161.
District 122’s decision has forced the remaining members to take a closer look at how to handle special-education services more effectively.
“It’s not a matter of any one district being dissatisfied with the co-op staff and administration, but a matter of saving costs and gaining control,” Manhattan 114 Supt. Howard Butters said.
“We’ll be taking a harder look at how we use the co-op, but there is a place for the co-op,” said Eileen Parente, student services director for Mokena School District 159.
The change shouldn’t come as a “huge surprise” to the other five members of the co-op, because New Lenox gradually has withdrawn programs since 2004, said Sass, whose background is in special education.
Operating on their own will keep students in their home district, address concerns quicker, provide more control over district resources, and eliminate yearly negotiations with other districts regarding services, he said.
He projects a cost savings of $529,000 for his district by the 2014-15 school year.
Sass announced his district’s intentions in January to withdraw by July 2014. But the district needs the permission of all the school boards in the member districts — a vote expected to take place this fall.
Meanwhile, many issues need to be ironed out. Other school officials don’t see a problem with the New Lenox proposal, but won’t know the full impact until all the details are worked out in the coming months.
New Lenox houses special-education programs for the co-op and plans to continue. It may revise its residency policy to allow special-education students on a tuition basis, as space permits, Sass said.
He estimated that about a dozen of his students would need to be housed in out-of-district co-op programs, also on a tuition basis.
District 122 wants to continue to contract with District 843 for bus transportation and will be responsible for meeting certain financial obligations to the co-op, such as payments for bonds and bus leases.
“It’s an amicable separation,” Sass said. “We will continue to look at the co-op as a resource.”
Sally Bintz, executive director of the co-op, said she is “disappointed” by New Lenox’s decision, but understands the rationale.
“The co-op is very much alive. We adapt to what our students and districts need. We cannot discount change. We do it in a positive way, and we support District 122 as it takes the next step,” Bintz said.
According to the Illinois State Board of Education, there are 139 standalone special-education entities and 75 co-ops. The trend is toward individual districts withdrawing from co-ops, ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. Typically, those districts want more autonomy over federal funds they receive for special education and over the services they provide, she said.
The Lincoln-Way co-op provides much more than programs. It maintains records, does billing, hires staff, provides support for parents, teachers and students, offers professional development for teachers, makes experts available, handles all data and state reporting, and has a parent advisory group.
“There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that the co-op provides,” Parente said. “We are true believers that the co-op is necessary.”
The remaining districts will look at the whole system to see how they can reduce costs as New Lenox exits.
District 843 operates on a $23 million budget, of which New Lenox contributes 14 percent, or $3.4 million, according to Craig Englert, the co-op’s assistant director for finance and operations.
The co-op has 311 students in programs and serves 670 overall.
Member contributions for administrative costs and building maintenance will increase by about $113,000, divided among all the remaining member districts, he said. All other services are billed based on usage.
“We project those programs will have to absorb up to $455,000 in additional costs unless further budget reductions are made prior to District 122’s withdrawal,” Englert said in an email. “Until we know for sure which services District 122 will continue to utilize upon withdrawing from the co-op we will not know the exact financial impact.”
Summit Hill District 161 now has the largest share — 17 percent — while Manhattan District 114 contributes the least, at 8 percent.
District 161 Supt. Barbara Rains said she can’t determine the impact at this time, pending approval of the withdrawal and other programming decisions.
“The impact of New Lenox leaving could potentially be greater on us,” Manhattan 114’s Butters said. He sees the co-op “downsizing” as more districts take back more programs and services.
In the 2013-14 school year, all members will house their own early childhood programs — preschool programs for special-ed students. And some will be hiring their own occupational and physical therapists and social workers.
Additionally, school officials said they may take on more administrative work, or look for other school districts to join the co-op to save costs.
“It’s a trend that co-ops are going through,” Frankfort District 157C Supt. Thomas Hurlburt said. Districts want to be fiscally responsible without compromising services.
“The co-op will just have to reinvent itself,” he said. “The future is bright.”
The Lincoln-Way high schools don’t share programs with the elementary schools, but they do share busing and administrative costs, Supt. Lawrence Wyllie said.
“This will be a big adjustment,” he said. “We all have to work together. We have to reduce costs.”
All the school leaders said they will focus on keeping the quality of the programs and services the co-op offers and make the transition as smooth as possible for students and parents.
“I’m sure we can maintain the integrity of the Lincoln-Way community,” Butters said. “We’re all in this together.”
Ignoring the trend
On the other side of the fence is a special-ed co-op that’s been working fine for its members for 50 years.
AERO — so named because it includes Argo, Evergreen Park, Reavis and Oak Lawn high schools — continues to be ”financially the best opportunity,” Evergreen Park Community High School District 231 Principal Bill Sanderson said.
The co-op also operates an alternative school for students with emotional disorders.
Director of student services and special education Norah Fahlen said staying in the co-op is “always a conversation I have with the board and the superintendent” at budget time.
But because of a low incidence of handicapped students, it is more cost-effective to work with AERO.
Evergreen Park High School has about 800 students; about 50 are served outside of the school building in co-op programs.
The situation is similar in Oak Lawn Community High School District 229, Supt. Mike Riordan said.
“We are a one-school district. We do not have the resources to serve all special-needs kids,” he said. “We have no intention of pulling out of our co-op. It works very well for our students and our school. I see nothing in the foreseeable future where we would leave.
“There are challenges because there are different needs, but we work through those differences. It may look like one (district) is contributing more at times, but that is the nature of the co-op. It all balances out.”