STERLING – Ray Villarreal implored the Sterling Public Schools to stick with the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative.
Villarreal is the father of three children in the district, including Noah, 10, who has a developmental disorder called cerebellar aplasia. He receives speech therapy and other services through the cooperative.
Villarreal pleaded with the school board Thursday afternoon to reconsider its plan to pull out of the 11-district cooperative.
He said that withdrawal and the subsequent changes to special education services would adversely affect special needs children such as his son, who require familiarity with their teachers and other service providers.
“I’m angry,” he said. “My son is going to be left behind.”
But the Sterling School Board, after about 15 minutes of public testimony at the special meeting, voted unanimously to withdraw effective with the 2014-15 school year.
The district is required, by school code and by its agreement with the cooperative, to give 18 months notice of its intent to withdraw from the group. The school board had to approve a resolution by Jan. 1 for the withdrawal to take effect at the end of the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2014.
Superintendent Tad Everett told Sauk Valley Media last week the decision has nothing to do with the cooperative or the quality of services it provides to special education students. He said it has everything to do with money.
Bi-County provides services to emotionally and developmentally challenged and otherwise handicapped students. The co-op provides speech therapy and occupational therapy, and it supplies social workers and psychologists. It also manages the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funds for all districts in the cooperative.
Cooperative members include nine districts in Whiteside County and two in Carroll County.
Sterling Public Schools is its largest customer; it provides about one-third of the revenue for the organization. Last year, the district paid $1.8 million to the cooperative, including its share of IDEA funding, Everett said.
The district estimates it could save more than $160,000 a year, Everett said, although it might not save that much right away, as the district will have to hire a special education director, a secretary and several teachers, as well as add, convert or rent space. But the district maintains it will save money over the long term, he said.
Tom Brackemeyer, whose wife is a speech-language pathologist for the cooperative, grilled the board as to how the district can take on special education services and still save money.
“So, in your opinion, can Sterling assume these students and give them the services that they’re currently obtaining with your cost savings?” he asked.
“Most definitely,” Everett replied.
Bobbie Bardier, a paraprofessional for the cooperative preschool program, urged board members to think about the children affected by their decision.
“It just amazes me that you’re going to do this by saving money,” she said.
Everett reiterated his approval of the organization, of which Sterling has been a member for more than 40 years, calling the quality of its services “phenomenal.” But, Everett said, the decision to withdraw from the cooperative in the current economic climate is a “necessity.”
“The intent of the co-op is for small districts to come together and share services,” he said. “But the large districts end up shouldering a large portion of those expenses.
“We believe we can do this ourselves at a cheaper rate and still maintain the high-quality service. We wouldn’t be doing this if it was a scenario where we felt our quality of service would be depleted in any way.”
Now, the 10 remaining districts in the cooperative must approve the move. If at least one of the member districts does not approve the withdrawal, Sterling can plead its case to the Regional Office of Education.
Sterling finance director Tim Schwingle did a preliminary study that compares the cost of in-house special education services to the cost of services by the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative.
The annual cost of in-house services – that is, what it would cost the district to provide special education programs, rather than what it now pays Bi-County for the same programs – is merely an estimate, Schwingle said.
"We ran the numbers just to see if it warranted us taking this step [of withdrawing from the cooperative]," he said.
IDEA grant $803,215
State special ed
Rent from Bi-County $47,828
TOTAL $999,215 $47,828
Bi-County tuition $951,145
TOTAL $1,740,440 $951,145
Net cost $741,225 $903,317
Difference between in-house services and Bi-County services: $162,092
Source: Sterling Public Schools