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School district to withdraw from special ed co-op? : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
School district to withdraw from special ed co-op?
Superintendent cites student performance gap in making recommendation

by Natalie Stevens


The Oswego School District administration is asking for the school board's support in withdrawing from the Kendall County Special Education Co-op (KCSEC) starting for the 2015-16 school year.

The decision comes following an audit of the special education program that was presented to the board in early February.

"Through the audit we learned that we own 67 percent of students served in the co-op. There are obviously some financial issues there," said Oswego Superintendent Dr. Matthew Wendt at the Monday night school board meeting.

The KCSEC serves the school districts of Oswego, Yorkville, Plano, Lisbon, Newark Grade School and Newark High School and is devoted to providing quality special education services to the students.

According to board documents, eight out of nine local school districts of comparable size do not use a special education cooperative, and the district that does has a low participation rate.

The documents further add that, "A more collaborative and cohesive working relationship between general education and special education staff will more likely be developed if the entire educational program were planned, delivered and managed from a single source."

The district's enrollment has increased more than 58 percent during the last 10 years and is more than large enough to provide a full array of programming and services for its own special needs students, according to board documents.

However, the performance gap between IEP (Individuals Education Program) and non-IEP students has remained approximately the same during the last 10 school years.

"There is a 40 percent achievement gap between students on IEPs and students in general education, and it's wrong and we have to do something about it," Wendt said. "It's an ethical issue for us."

Wendt said the issue of being a part of the co-op has been expressed as a conversation for years and has been brought up with every group he's met with since joining the school district in 2012.

"We weren't suggesting at the time that things were bad," Wendt said of the co-op. "But the special education audit pointed out deficiencies that are unacceptable. We cannot ignore those."

"I don't believe what was presented in the audit can be addressed by continuing the status quo," he added.

Some of those deficiencies, Wendt said, include the management of the school district, as there are teachers and staff working for the district, and there are teachers and staff working for the cooperative.

"Not only are their contracts different, professional development and training can be different and expectations are different," Wendt said. "We can do a better job."

"We have different needs than Lisbon and Plano," Wendt said. "We are prepared to make that case."

To withdraw from the KCSEC, the district must file a withdrawal notice and petition 12 months prior to the date of withdrawal. Which for the district means that the petition must be filed by July 1 if the district does not want to be a part of the cooperative for the 2015-16 school year. The district will remain a part of the cooperative for the 2014-15 school year.

Maureen Lemon, an attorney for the district, further explained that the petition will be voted on by the other districts in the cooperative within 90 days.

"If all the districts vote in favor, you are withdrawn," Lemon said. "If they do not there is a second option to file the petition with the regional board of school trustees."

All districts must unanimously vote in favor or the withdrawal will not go through.

Should the petition continue to the regional board, Lemon said they would determine at a hearing if the benefits of the withdrawal outweigh any detriments of the withdrawal. If they approved the petition, the district would still be removed from the program starting for the 2015-16 school year.

Following the withdrawal, the district would have to make a comprehensive plan for special education.

"When I say comprehensive, I mean comprehensive," Lemon said. "You must know how you're going to educate every child within your boundaries."

Board member Matt Bauman wanted to know who was going to be working on the new comprehensive plan.

Judy Minor, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said they would be working with the attorneys and also looking at other districts that have taken this same approach.

"We would literally look at every component of what we offer for special education," Minor said. "We would have to start from square one looking at models of what's best while at the same time configuring it for our particular needs."

The timeline would be one year, which Minor said they will be able to meet.

Six months ago Wendt said he hoped that the district could "tweak" the program and make it work, but found it is not the case anymore.

"If I thought tweaking it would do it, we'd tweak. We'd adjust. But there is a reason why we continue to come back with this issue. We can't operate like we did when we had 5,000 students. We cannot continue to do what we've done," he said.

Katra Knoernschild, a district parent and vice president of communications for Exceptional Parents of Exceptional Children (EPEC), addressed the board Monday evening. She asked the board to hear her voice and every parent's voice in the coming months regarding the withdrawal.

EPEC works to bring together and support the families with special needs children in the district, Knoernschild said.

"Over the past year it's been difficult for us to reach members due to changes in administration. We have been working with some administrators to move that process forward, but it's still been stalled.

"There isn't a classroom or a program in our district that our families [don't] touch. When we talk about withdrawing from the co-op, a drop of water in a puddle has a ripple effect. When we don't involve the voices of our families... that ripple effect can expand to waves and floods, " Knoernschild said.

Wendt said more conversation has to take place in the coming months.

"There is anxiety. There's anxiety on my part. This is a new territory. But I think it's the right territory. Leading with fear is not leadership. You have to have courage; jump in," said Wendt.

Parents like Knoernschild said they would like to be a part of that conversation.

"The question here today isn't whether or not we're withdrawing from the co-op, it's what happens next," she said. "Where's my voice in this process? How will it impact my child? At every level our children are impacted. I hope we do indeed move forward with a parent forum. Our parents are part of those programs. We're all impacted. We're all connected."

The item will be placed on the agenda for the June 23 board meeting and Wendt asked that the board vote in favor of the withdrawal.

If the board does not submit a petition in time for the July 1 deadline, the district will continue to be a part of the Kendall County Special Education Cooperative for the 2015-16 school year.

Yorkville School District Superintendent Tim Shimp said Tuesday that other districts in the county knew Oswego's withdrawal might be a possibility as it had been mentioned at a co-op board meeting.

He said he expected the remaining districts (Yorkville, Plano, Newark High School, Newark Grade School and Lisbon Grade School) would collaborate and "talk as a group" about what to do in the future if the largest district leaves.

"I understand that Oswego has to look out for what's best for their district. As you get bigger, it lends itself to reconsideration (being in a co-op). When you're smaller, it makes more sense to be a part of one," Shimp said.

Right now there has been no discussion about Yorkville leaving the cooperative, he said. However, Shimp did say that part of the district's strategic plan includes a review of special education needs of the district.

"This might force us to re-visit that sooner than expected. We need to ask are we at the point where we need a director of special education. This will allow us to have those discussions sooner rather than later.

"We're still committed to providing support for our students who need special education. If there are any steps parents need to know about, we will keep them informed," Shimp said.

Kathy Farren contributed to this article.

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