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Most area districts deny Sterling school district request

Official: Other schools would see higher costs if wish granted

STERLING – The Sterling school district wants to leave a cooperative of districts that provides services for special education students. 

But most of its counterparts oppose the move. 

If Sterling leaves, the cooperative says, its remaining members will likely see their costs rise. That's what happened in a cooperative that serves districts in Lee and Ogle counties. 

Over the past few months, the boards for the 10 other member districts voted on whether to allow Sterling – the largest member – to leave the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative. 

Six districts – Prophetstown-Lyndon-Tampico, Morrison, East Coloma-Nelson, Rock Falls High School, Rock Falls Elementary and Eastland – voted against the move. The Erie, River Bend, Montmorency and Chadwick-Milledgeville districts backed Sterling.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Illinois school districts formed cooperatives to provide services for special education students. By pooling their resources, they saved money, officials say. 

In December, though, Sterling announced it wanted to leave the cooperative, saying the move could save money for the district.

"We can provide services as effectively as Bi-County, but we can do it more efficiently," Sterling Superintendent Tad Everett said.

The issue comes down to finances, he said, with the district expecting to save $190,000 a year if it leaves.

"We need to make the point that we're not upset with the co-op," he said. "We pay roughly a third of the administrative costs. That almost equates to four of our teachers. That's four teachers that we don't have to reduce in force. We won't have the administrative costs because we already have principals in the buildings."

In early December, the boards for the Whiteside and Carroll-Stephenson-Jo Daviess regional offices of education will have a hearing on Sterling's request.

If the boards deny Sterling's request, the district can bring up the issue again, which Everett expects it would do.

Next Monday, the Sterling district plans to have an informational session on its plans for special education services and to "dispel" rumors about its plans to leave the cooperative. 

"We have heard the rumor that we will no longer offer special education classes. That's absolutely not true," Everett said. "I'm not sure where those rumors surfaced. By law, we are required to offer those programs."

Drew Hoffman, Bi-County's director, said an analysis shows that if Sterling leaves, his group will likely have to assess the remaining members a 12 percent increase. 

"Based on what I've seen, I'm not 100 percent convinced that Sterling will be able to save money," he said. 

The Sterling district has 454 students who receive special education services. Most of them are mainstreamed into conventional classrooms; they receive limited services from the cooperative, such as periodic evaluations. 

Eighty-eight of the students – making up 40 percent of the cooperative – are in Bi-County's programs. 

A couple of years ago, the wealthy Byron school district left the Ogle County Educational Cooperative after a 2-year fight. The cooperative includes three Lee County districts – Amboy, AFC and Steward.

Byron's exit cost each of the remaining districts more money, said Mike Noble, the cooperative's director.

"We could not reduce the services comparable to what Byron was paying into the co-op," he said. "We hired full-time staff and assigned them to multiple districts. I can't hire them for 4 days a week. Then they would leave."

To attend

Officials at Sterling Public Schools plan to have an informational session for parents at 6 p.m. Monday at the Sterling High School library, 1608 Fourth Ave.

Officials will speak about their plans to leave the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative, which pools the resources of 11 school districts to provide services to special education students. A question-and-answer session will follow.

Call the Sterling district at 815-626-5050 for more information.

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