STERLING – After fielding questions Monday night from parents on the Sterling Public Schools’ request to withdraw from the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative, Superintendent Tad Everett recapped their top concern.
“Concerns about staff training came out loud and clear,” he said, as the group of about 55 parents and grandparents of special needs children began to leave the Sterling library.
The more than 2-hour informational meeting was the next step in a timeline that began in December 2012, with the Sterling district’s formal notification of its desire to withdraw from the Bi-County co-op effective the 2014-15 school year. This spring and summer, the other 10 districts in the co-op voted on the request. Four districts voted in favor of Sterling’s request and six were against it.
In September, the district formally appealed the decision to the Regional Board of School Trustees. To win its appeal, Sterling needs the vote of 70 percent of the 14 trustees. A decision is expected in the first week of December.
The district now provides services for 435 special needs students. The plan would bring 88 additional Bi-County students into their home schools.
The experience of staff in the Bi-County system was cited by several parents.
“A special ed certification can’t replace 20 years of experience in life skills classes,” one parent said during the question-and-answer session which took up a majority of the meeting.
Everett said the district is looking for experienced teachers, with a master’s degree plus 6 years experience being a staffing goal.
“This will be a highly effective staff,” Everett said. “We won’t just pull people off the streets.”
Becky Haas, director of curriculum and instruction, and special education coordinator, said there is much interest among current staff, all with several years of special ed experience. Haas would serve as director of special education in the new Sterling program if the withdrawal is approved.
With the district implementing a 3-year staff-reduction initiative, others Monday expressed fears about student-teacher ratios and whether newly hired special ed staff would be most vulnerable to cuts.
“We are required by law to service students appropriately and maintain certain student-teacher ratios,” Everett said.
Others feared that bullying and student safety could become more worrisome in larger buildings with more students.
“We demand respect for all students,” Everett said. “Bullying is a societal problem, not just a Sterling schools problems.”
One parent suggested they look at the situation as an opportunity for their children, citing the importance of feeling included.
“Parents need to advocate, but kids can have more activities to look forward to,” she said.
Some parents said they found it “scary” that several answers to their questions included the words “we’re not sure yet.”
Haas reminded them that plans are a work in process. The stated purpose of the meeting was to provide a rationale for the withdrawal recommendation and explain the legal process for doing so.
“This meeting was not to announce a finalized plan,” Haas said. “The comprehensive plan will not be developed until April.
Everett stressed that the withdrawal request isn’t about anything that Bi-County is doing wrong. Instead, after doing a feasibility study, the district believes it can provide services effectively and more efficiently. Projected savings are $160,000 a year. In 2012, Sterling paid Bi-County $1,740,440.
“Bi-County does a great job; we’re not mad at Bi-County,” Everett said. “But the largest schools shoulder more of the costs in a co-op, and we’re not in the philanthropy business for other districts.”
Everett said that eight Illinois districts are planning to withdraw from special ed co-ops this school year, while 59 have left in the past 11 years.
“They were all in the exact same situation as us,” he said. “But we didn’t want this to be just a business decision. We said early on that we shouldn’t do this if we can’t offer as good or better services for students.”
For more information
For more information about the meeting and the issue in general, go to the district website at sterlingpublicschools.org and click on Superintendent Links. A Bi-County link with FAQs will soon be added.