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Deadbeat Illinois imperils special education

The Bi-County Special Education Cooperative, a regional cooperation success story, is imperiled because of the state’s shaky finances. There will be no winners in the upcoming decision on Sterling’s pullout from the co-op, only survivors.

Published: Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

Illinois’ shaky finances have put the squeeze on vendors, social service agencies, and public education, from universities on down to local school districts.

The Bi-County Special Education Cooperative may soon be added to the list.

The cooperative is made up of 11 school districts in Whiteside and Carroll counties who pool their resources to provide special education services to students who need them.

And for about the past 4 decades, the cooperative has succeeded in its mission.

However, Sterling Public Schools, the largest district, wants to pull out of the cooperative. Its superintendent believes Sterling could spend the $1.7 million it pays the cooperative to create and conduct its own special education classes and save $190,000 of that money in the process.

Deadbeat Illinois has not paid its full share of financial aid owed to school districts for some time, so local districts increasingly have had to scrutinize their spending, make cuts, and consider other cost-saving measures. Across the state, other districts have already done what Sterling proposes to do.

We certainly can’t blame Sterling for trying to save money. The departure from the co-op also has the potential to preserve some teaching jobs within the district.

And we can’t blame six of the school districts for voting against Sterling’s departure from the co-op. The Bi-County Special Education Cooperative is effective – Sterling officials have said as much – but with Sterling’s departure, the remaining 10 districts would have to increase their payments to the co-op by about 12 percent to make up for the loss.

Sterling’s departure was to have been the topic of a December hearing of the regional boards of education for the counties of Whiteside and Carroll-Stephenson-Jo Daviess. That meeting has been delayed until mid-January.

Not to be forgotten in all this, of course, are the special education students and the disruptions they would experience. If Sterling’s withdrawal is approved, 88 Sterling students would be moved back to the district and have to adjust to unfamiliar buildings, classrooms and teachers.

The remaining Bi-County students, about 130, would have their own adjustments to make.

For our part, we have seen the value of regional cooperation time and time again. We have advocated for additional regional cooperation to facilitate progress in the Sauk Valley.

The Bi-County Special Education Cooperative is a regional cooperation success story that is now imperiled because of Illinois’ inability to get its financial house in order.

Whatever the regional school boards decide, there will be no winners, just survivors.

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