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Regional schools panel turns down Sterling co-op request

School district has 10 days to appeal decision

STERLING – A panel of two regional boards of education shot down the Sterling school district's request to leave an area special education services cooperative after a 3.5-hour meeting Tuesday in the high school library.

The Whiteside and Carroll-Stephenson-Jo Daviess regional boards voted 7-6 in favor of letting Sterling leave the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative, but fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to allow the exit of the largest member of the 11-school co-op.

The panel could have chosen to continue the meeting, which would have given it 10 more days to vote.

Although financial implications were a large part of the testimony from the school district and Bi-County, the vote was to be made based on whether the withdrawal was in the best interest of the special needs students in the Sterling district.

The panel listened to comments from the public before hearing the testimony from both sides.

Liz Davis, a 2008 Sterling High graduate, went through the Bi-County programs. She told the panel that the advocacy efforts provided were a huge help to her family.

"I'm a college graduate and living completely on my own," Davis said. "What I've accomplished is because of the attitude Bi-County taught me."

Neil Cooperrider, of Sterling, said Bi-County has been consistently hands-on in providing services for his 15-year-old daughter.

"These folks have real compassion and are advocates for families," Cooperrider said. "Economics were a big part of the discussion, but I'm not sure where the savings will occur. Staff won't come cheap."

Officials from the school district were visibly disappointed with the panel's decision after going through a process that dates back to 2011, when a comprehensive plan to assess programs and services was done.

Becky Haas, director of curriculum and instruction, and special education coordinator, has worked closely with Superintendent Tad Everett throughout the development of a comprehensive plan. She said their focus remains the same.

"We're in this for the kids," Haas said minutes after the vote. "We'll continue to do everything we always do and work with Bi-County to provide the best services possible."

The school district has 10 days to appeal to the regional boards.

"I don't know what our next step will be at this time," Haas said.

Bi-County had testified that it anticipated a 12 percent cost increase without Sterling in the co-op. Sterling had hoped to save about $160,000 a year by leaving the co-op, but conceded those savings would not be realized in the first 2 years because of upfront costs in bringing the programs back to the school.

Bi-County Director Drew Hoffman was in tears after the vote.

"This has been a trying time for us," Hoffman said. "There was a lot of good compelling information on both sides. But for now, we'll continue as is and see what Sterling may or may not do next."

East Coloma-Nelson Superintendent Gregory Lutyens spoke on behalf of Bi-County. He said that 15 percent of his budget already goes for special ed and that Sterling's departure from the co-op would have caused his newly combined district financial hardship.

"I understand the efforts to save money, but I don't believe this is the answer. I'd like to see us work together to solve our financial problems."

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