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School board votes to withdraw from co-op : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
School board votes to withdraw from co-op
Administration recommendation supported; parents express concerns

by Natalie Stevens


The Oswego School District Board approved two resolutions in split ballots Monday evening in regards to withdrawing from the Kendall County Special Education Cooperative (KCSEC) and the dissolution of the cooperative following a lengthy discussion and public commentary.

Board members voted 5-2 in favor of a resolution to withdraw the district from the co-op with members Alison Swanson and Matt Bauman cast the dissenting votes. The board then passed a second resolution in a 6-1 ballot to dissolve the co-op with Swanson casting the lone dissenting vote.

The KCSEC serves the school districts of Oswego, Yorkville, Plano, Lisbon, Newark Grade School and Newark High School and provides special education services to the students. The cooperative was formed in 1974 and has been serving students in Kendall County for 40 years.

Superintendent Dr. Matthew Wendt asked at a June 9 board meeting for the board's approval in submitting a withdrawal, citing issues with the achievement gap between general education students and special education students as well as the "governance model" of the special education program.

"There's a 40 percent achievement gap," Wendt said. "Withdrawing may not be a silver bullet, but I believe when senior administration indicates over the last decade that students with IEPs (Individual Education Plans) are at a 40 percent plus achievement gap compared to neighboring districts I think we have some significant issues we need to address."

The other side of the issue is the governance of how the co-op is run, as there are separate Oswego School District staff and separate co-op staff.

"I don't think everyone even understands the (co-op) staffs have different contracts than those employed with (Oswego School District) 308," Wendt said. "I frankly feel that would be an issue if staff were in different parts of the district. I can only imagine how that would be across the hallway."

Wendt said there was also a "financial component" and said, "I think we owe it to people to ask the question: can we be more effective and do it under a framework that costs less?"

Concerned school district parents showed up Monday evening to address the board about the withdrawal from the co-op and the many questions regarding the comprehensive plan the district will need to have in place.

"There's apprehension over leaving the co-op," said parent Jared Ploger during public comment. "Not because it is a bad idea, but because (parents) have no idea what plan is in place and how their children will be affected."

Liz Blair, president of Exceptional Parents of Exceptional Children (EPEC) echoed those sentiments and said she had "mixed feelings about this move." She said the audit revealed that District 308 students are not performing at high levels and that two thirds of IEP students are performing on the district's watch. "Why is the district program not working?" Blair asked.

She said the district is asking parents to trust something "unseen" with their request to withdraw from the co-op.

"By voting to withdraw from the co-op without a 'plan' ... you are asking us to be extremely trusting with our most precious commodity," she said, adding, "The district researched the new math curriculum before voting to implement it. Why shouldn't a special education plan be afforded with the same consideration?"

To withdraw from the cooperative, the district must file a withdrawal notice and petition 12 months prior to the date of withdrawal, which for the district means 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.

The other five school districts in the KCSEC will then vote within 90 days on whether to approve the withdrawal. Should any district vote against it, there is a second option to file the petition with the regional board of school trustees.

Bauman asked for the motion to approve the withdrawal request be tabled until a complete comprehensive plan comes before the board.

"Everything we do comes down to the wire. We should have started talking about this ... (in February)," said Bauman.

The motion was eventually voted down 5-2, with Bauman and Vice-president Swanson casting votes in favor of tabling.

Board member Greg O'Neil brought up the issue of the July 1 deadline when the motion to table was first mentioned.

"If we don't vote on this resolution, we will be stuck with this for two years. I think it's important to move forward," O'Neil said. "I think there's going to be a lot of things that come out of this in next several months. I know change is uncomfortable, but that's what has to happen in the school district going forward. We need to withdraw to make changes to benefit our special education students."

Bauman and Swanson both expressed concerns about the district's comprehensive plan for the special education program, which would need to be eventually approved by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE).

"Those plans should be made before we withdraw from the co-op," said Bauman, asking if the district was going to "make it up as we go?"

Judy Minor, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said at the June 9 board meeting the district would be able to meet the deadline of one year for the comprehensive plan.

Wendt told the board that the comprehensive plan has already been started and it will have to be approved at different levels.

Katra Knoernschild, a district parent and vice president of communications for EPEC, said the parent organization has been approached by administration to bring back the auditor who performed the February audit of the district's special education program to assist in the comprehensive plan for the state.

"He has no special education program experience," Knoernschild said. "When it comes to the comprehensive plan, you bring someone in who's highly qualified in special education. From this moment forward, anything we do in special education needs to involve someone highly qualified in special education."

Naperville lawyer Mark Metzger, who was hired by the district for the special education cooperative, told the board that the comprehensive plan would have to be approved by the ISBE or the district's withdrawal would not be approved.

"It's not just up to you," he said.

The ISBE would likely look at the district's comprehensive plan sometime in March or May of 2015, said Metzger.

"Does that make you more comfortable, knowing that the state is involved?" member Brent Lightfoot asked Bauman.

"I think it's a vital programming factor that we should have 85 percent of the plan laid out at this point," responded Bauman.

Metzger also clarified that the request to withdraw from the co-op does not mean it is a final decision. "There's a misunderstanding if you do this tonight it's over and done with. All that does is start a ball rolling. The outcome cannot happen any earlier. You do not bind yourself to depart. You simply bind yourself to begin the discussion."

"Once a district notifies the co-op of a withdrawal, the timeline can be negotiated," Wendt said. "That's important. Part of our big assumption is that it's an automatic - because we have to give one year - it means automatically we'd be out within one year. No it doesn't. It just authorizes superintendents to sit in a room and have a discussion on how this will work."

Wendt added that the district is not in a position to "relinquish all of our conversations" and details of pulling out of the co-op without the board's authority.

In fact, Metzger said the district can withdraw its withdrawal proposal at any time.

"This does not commit you to take the final step. ... You're giving yourself flexibility," he said.

The Newark School District has already voted to withdraw from the co-op and has also called for the complete dissolution of the co-op.

"There's going to be some type of change," Wendt said of news of the other withdrawal. "And we're the largest portion of that."

A total of 67 percent of the students served by the co-op reside in the Oswego School District.

"If we aren't ready, there is no co-op to cop out on as an excuse," warned parent Jared Ploger. "You have an opportunity to bring parents in and communicate your plan and message. Please be transparent."

He asked administration to consider who would be in charge of the IEOs and the tier 4 students and urged that the needs of the special education students not be ignored for the sake of efficiency.

Wendt said the item came through the actions that Newark School District took when they withdrew from the co-op, and following legal counsel, it was suggested that the Oswego School District be a part of that discussion.

"Unless you adopt this resolution, Dr. Wendt will not be able to engage in those discussions," Metzger said. "This is about keeping options open to you."

Metzger said it's possible the withdrawal from the co-op may be better served by a "phased transition that leads to the ultimate dissolution of the cooperative."

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