STERLING – After a panel of regional school board trustees denied its request to leave the Bi-County County Special Education Cooperative, the Sterling school district has decided to abandon its plan.
The board voted 7-6 on Tuesday in favor of Sterling’s withdrawal request, but a two-thirds majority was needed to approve it.
School officials said that although the district had discussed its options before Tuesday’s meeting with the Whiteside and Carroll-Stephenson-Jo Daviess regional boards of education, a leadership team gathered Wednesday afternoon to talk about the hearing.
The team issued a statement saying that the district would not file a petition for a new hearing, and Sterling would withdraw its request to present a comprehensive plan to the Illinois State Advisory Council on the Education of Children with Disabilities.
Had the regional board approved the request, the district would have made its presentation to ISAC in April.
The district’s focus is to now move forward and work with Bi-County to do what is best for the students, said Becky Haas, Sterling’s director of curriculum and instruction, and special education.
“I think we can come together for the kids, and work together to improve services and communication,” Haas said.
Haas said district officials believed that panel members lost sight of the one question they were supposed to be voting on: whether it was in the best interest of the special needs students in the petitioning district that the request for withdrawal from the co-op be granted.
“The interpretation of the school code should have been the main focus,” Haas said. “I think they got away from that.”
That could have had something to do with the approach taken during Bi-County’s testimony portion of the hearing, Haas said. A good deal of time was spent talking about the financial implications of Sterling’s exit for Bi-County and other member districts. Superintendents Gregory Lutyens of East Coloma-Nelson and Mark Hansen of Eastland spoke on Bi-County’s behalf about the hardship Sterling’s exit would inflict on their districts.
At one point, a panel member did issue a reminder about how he perceived the task at hand.
“We’ve heard a lot about how it affects you, but we’re here to vote on what is in the best interests of the Sterling kids,” trustee Kevin Boyer said.
The emotions that the financial conversations stirred up was a bit of a wild card, Whiteside County Regional Superintendent Bob Sondgeroth said.
“I honestly had no idea how the vote would go,” Sondgeroth said. “Bi-County kept bringing up money, and that could have been a bit of a distraction from what they were voting on.”
Sterling School Board President Jim Brotheridge said his board members were not surprised by the decision, largely because of the emotions involved.
“I think this was a situation in which it was difficult for people to not think of their own best interests, rather than that of the Sterling kids, as the code states,” he said.
When considering the best interests of the Sterling kids, however, the issue of a comprehensive plan also became contentious. The deadline for a completed plan was 30 days before the April ISAC hearing.
During Sterling’s presentation to the panel on Tuesday, Superintendent Tad Everett said he relied heavily on Boyd Ferguson, a widely acknowledged expert in the withdrawal process at the Illinois Board of Education.
“He told us to focus on the hearing and pull back on the work with the comprehensive plan,” Everett told the panel.
Everett said Ferguson also advised that the district focus on communicating with parents. An informational meeting was held in October, and Everett said he was “humbled by the parents’ response.”
“I wasn’t ready for the emotion and need for details,” Everett said. “They didn’t care that it cost the district $1.7 million to educate 88 students. It came back to me that this can’t be a financial issue.”
Many parents expected details at the informational meeting, and in its presentation, Bi-County said it had asked for a copy of a plan but was never given one.
Brotheridge said the board was united in its belief that Sterling could handle the special ed programs.
“I think we were all in agreement that that was the way we wanted to go,” Brotheridge said. “I think it would have been a lot, but we were confident in Tad and that we could make it work.”
Bi-County also said Wednesday that hard feelings are a luxury no one involved can afford.
“We need to approach everything with the most professional attitude possible,” Bi-County Director Drew Hoffman said. “The bottom line is, we all need to do everything possible to meet the needs of the children.”