STERLING – How to cut up to $300,000 from its $2.5 million budget without negatively impacting its special ed students: That's the challenge facing the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative.
Its board held a special meeting Tuesday to begin discussing where such trims can be made.
The overwhelming theme, as Morrison School District Superintendent Suellen Girard put it: "Let's look at what we can do that doesn't hurt the kids, to start with."
Among the measures being considered: Consolidate Bi-County's staff in either Thome School in Rock Falls, or Wallace School in Sterling, space in both of which it now leases; replace eight retiring teachers with less-experienced, and therefore lower-paid, teachers; don't replace the principal at Thome, and instead split those duties among three other principals; and, of course, cut staff.
Regarding the latter, Bi-County Director Drew Hoffman noted that the co-op already has reduced certified staff members from 243 positions 3 years ago to 203 today.
And cutting staff in the co-op isn't like cutting staff in a regular school district: Because special ed students have unique needs, they often have individualized education plans that might require a child to have his or her own aide. Their special challenges mean typical student-teacher ratios don't apply. Also, speech pathologists, psychologists, audiologists and social workers are needed on staff.
At Tuesday's preliminary meeting, board members gave Hoffman the task of gathering and analyzing reams of information that they can use to make help their decisions. How much money will be saved if one or the other facility's lease is dropped? How much money does Bi-County spend per student compared to other special ed co-ops? Exactly which staff members might be expendable (a question that requires Hoffman to consider the IEPs of all students in all 11 districts served by the co-op)?
"If we're going to do this right, we need to look at the classrooms: Are we putting the right number of students, the right number of teachers, the right number of aides in the classrooms? If we are, then we look somewhere else," Rock Falls Elementary Superintendent Dan Arickx said.
The cuts are coming in the wake of the Sterling school district's attempt to withdraw from the co-op and provide special ed services on its own, which, had it been successful, would have saved the district about $190,000 a year, Superintendent Tad Everett estimated.
In the end, Sterling failed to garner enough votes from the other member districts. Opponents said Sterling's withdrawal would result in a financial hardship for the co-op that would adversely affect services provided to its students.
As the biggest district, Sterling pays the biggest assessment to the co-op, money that pays for salaries, benefits, supplies, facilities leases and the like. It is looking to cut its share by $100,000, which means the other districts would cut theirs by $200,000 total.
All board members acknowledge, though, that that figure might not be possible, and are looking to Hoffman's research to determine how much can be cut.
Hoffman estimates the process will take about 6 weeks.
Bi-County Special Education Cooperative is made up of 11 school districts: Sterling, Prophetstown-Lyndon-Tampico, Morrison, East Coloma-Nelson (in Rock Falls and Nelson), Rock Falls High School, Rock Falls Elementary, Eastland (in Lanark), Erie, River Bend (in Fulton), Montmorency (in Rock Falls) and Chadwick-Milledgeville.
Go to www.bi-county.org to learn more.