NR-S considering alternative to East Central special ed
November 22, 2021
The NR-S school board considered withdrawal from the East Central Center for Exceptional Children Special Education Unit (East Central) on Monday, Nov. 15.
After hearing emotional testimonies, and with dozens of concerned citizens in attendance, the NR-S school board unanimously voted for a motion that effectively delays the decision to dissolve their relationship with East Central.
The motion, which was made by Alyson Myhre and seconded by Todd Allmaras, postpones the vote until the board’s February meeting, keeping the fate of the school’s membership with East Central in limbo for the time being.
The idea was brought forth by Superintendent Jill Louters. In her Summary of Proposed Action, which is posted in the board packet on the NR-S school website, Louters gives two primary reasons for her request to leave East Central:
1. “A marked decline in organizational performance over the past several years.”
2. “Escalating costs which are no longer sustainable.”
“Escalating costs” was a major topic of discussion at Monday’s meeting. A number of concerned parents stepped up to the podium to deliver impassioned testimony, arguing that finances shouldn’t play a role in their children’s special education.
Amanda Hegland, whose daughter requires special education, and utilizes East Central’s services, was the first parent to express concern that financial matters were being prioritized over children’s needs.
“It was upsetting to read that the primary concern of the district was budget concerns,” Hegland said. “Special education is the one area that shouldn’t cut corners or costs. These are the highest needs students who require the utmost quality of care and services.”
Other parents with children served by East Central expressed concern that the change in programming might interrupt or reverse progress made by their children. Jennifer Ruppell, a concerned taxpayer, agreed. “My experience with special ed kids is that change isn’t a good thing. They’ve already had a rough year with Covid, and I just really hope that the board looks at this, seriously, about the impact on the kids.”
Louters writes in her proposal that the cost of East Central’s services has risen 23.8 percent in the last six years, and that the school will pay over $500,000 for East Central’s services this year alone, or about 11.2 percent of their total budget for the 2021-22 school year.
Louters argues that the district’s bottom line would improve by inviting the special educators that currently work in their building to leave East Central, and come under contract with NR-S. The move would also give the district control over staffing for special education, a concern expressed by multiple school board members at Monday’s meeting.
To fulfill the remaining special education needs of their students, NR-S would then turn to the Lake Region Special Education Unit (Lake Region) - a special education cooperative which serves over 600 students from 12 member school districts.
“Our district would receive enhanced services and save significant dollars by joining this unit,” writes Louters about the benefits of joining Lake Region. “Those services include: access to a social worker, access to two school psychologists, ... program coordinators who would be on site one day per week ... an in-house program supporting students with intellectual disabilities ... and stipends for staff attending professional development activities.”
In response, many of East Central’s staff pointed out the downsides to leaving East Central. For example, East Central Director Ashly Wolsky told the Transcript on Friday, Nov. 12, that Lake Region does not provide a transition coordinator.
Vickie Becvar currently fulfills this role within East Central, Wolsky added, and most of the expenses for her position are currently paid for by a grant through vocational rehab.
Ultimately, Louters’ proposal put forth two options for the school board’s consideration:
• Plan A provides three FTE (full-time equivalent) teachers and seven paraprofessionals, at an estimated cost to the school of $460,471.56 per year.
• Plan B provides two FTE teachers and seven paraprofessionals, and is estimated to cost the school $393,253.29 per year.
Louters suggests addressing potential pay discrepancies between the two contracts “through offers of summer work or additional contract work.” Meanwhile, paraprofessionals would be guaranteed the same hourly rate of pay and a single health insurance policy, which East Central does not currently offer.
However, at least one of East Central’s staff members expressed an unwillingness to leave East Central.
“I’ve spent my entire career except for one year serving the students with special needs through East Central,” said Allison Haley, a 29-year veteran of special education. “Personally, I'm not interested in ‘summer work or additional contract work’ to meet my current pay. This is not to mention benefits that have accrued from East Central.”
As it pertains to East Central’s alleged “marked decline in organizational performance over the past several years,” Louters argues that East Central’s students are “significantly non-proficient” in math and reading according to state and STAR testing.
East Central Director Ashly Wolsky countered this point when she took to the podium Monday night. During her testimony, she shared findings from the 2018-19 North Dakota State Assessment, which revealed that the state math percentage of proficiency for special education students was 15.59 percent. Wolsky then compared the math proficiencies of East Central and NR-S, which were 21.92 percent and 15.75 percent, respectively.
Wolsky added, “I want to tell you that our unit functions with the best of those across the state. ... The state average for proficiency in reading [from 2018-19] ... is 17.02 percent proficient. East Central’s, 16.6 percent [proficient]. New Rockford’s, 11.11 percent proficient.”
The former business manager of East Central, Susette Allmaras, added, “On the issue of performance I just have to add, I find it interesting that Dr. Louters would want to hire the teachers that she states aren’t providing appropriate and meaningful instruction.”
As the school board members took turns stating their case and responding to community concerns, it became clear that many members felt there wasn’t enough information to make a decision. School board members Mike Schaefer, Travis Benson and Todd Allmaras each expressed a desire for additional “fact finding” before casting a vote.
School board president Mary Kay Price argued in favor of leaving East Central, but said, “We would never leave the children with somebody that we didn’t think would do a good job with them.”
Price went on to explain that she’s “a big budget person too,” and that the school board has constantly had to tell East Central staff that the budget is too tight to provide everything they’re asking for.
“We know what’s best for the children, and we’re going to make sure they get what they need,” concluded Price.
School board member Alyson Myhre added, “Nobody wants to have these conversations, but we have to, we have to be able to talk about these things and we have to be able to listen to other people ... We’re all on this board hoping and praying that what we’re doing and the decisions that we’re making are benefiting every single kid in this building.”
Meanwhile, school board member Patti Larson argued definitively against leaving East Central, citing too many “unknowns” and her desire to utilize local businesses. However, school board Vice President Mike Jacobson, who spoke in favor of leaving East Central, made clear that this issue isn’t going anywhere.
“There is so much negativity and angst within the NR-S - East Central business relationship, that I would hope a new endeavor with a new organization would end well for everyone,” said Jacobson. “Something has to change, something has to. I mean we can’t continue on the path that we are.”
With that, Alyson Myhre made the motion to delay the vote until February.
“I’ll make a motion that we table this decision until ... our February meeting to give us time to gather more information and fully inform not only our special education parents but I think every parent of this district,” said Myhre. “This doesn’t just affect our special education parents, I believe this affects every parent in this district.”
Louters’ full proposal and supporting documents are available on the NR- S website, at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1R993hBscSNo9uiYj30Ys-Z5HF3zlE1KX/view. NR-S district families are encouraged to reach out to board members with their perspectives on this issue.