The location of Proviso Area Exceptional Children, 1000 Van Buren Avenue in Maywood, where many of D89’s special needs students are sent during the school day. The district is currently trying to pull out of the cooperative because it believes it can serve those students better on its own | Google
Saturday, June 4, 2016 || By Michael Romain
A growing contingent of community members are raising alarms about proposed legislation that would allow District 89 to pull out of the Proviso Area Exceptional Children Cooperative — which is a special education joint agreement program established to provide special education services for six area elementary and high school districts, including Bellwood District 88, Broadview District 92 and Proviso Township High School District 209.
House Bill 6252 would amend the Illinois School Code to allow an elementary school district to withdraw from a cooperative like PAEC if that district “maintains grades up to and including grade 8 […] had a 2014-2015 best 3 months’ average daily attendance of 5,209.57 [and] a 2014 equalized assessed valuation of at least $451,500,000, but not more than $452,000,000, and the special education joint agreement consists of 6 school districts.”
The proposed legislation — which was co-sponsored by state Reps. Kathleen Willis (77th), Camille Y. Lilly (78th) and state Sens. Don Harmon (39th) and Steven Landek (12th) — passed both houses overwhelmingly on May 31 and awaits Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature.
Some residents, including PAEC board members, local high school board members and community leaders, have taken to Facebook and email to protest the pending legislation.
Among their criticisms of the bill, they say it establishes criteria that are exclusive to D89’s grade composition, attendance numbers and property tax base, and is tailored specifically to allow D89 to leave the cooperative by circumventing the process that’s in place for dealing with member district disagreements.
In 2013, according to Terry Smith, PAEC’s executive director, D89 had petitioned to withdraw from the cooperative, but was voted down by the other member districts. A second appeal was also voted down. After those appeals failed, there was no other recourse for the district, since there doesn’t exist any regional body to appeal to.
“Cook County is the only county that doesn’t have a regional board,” said D89 Superintendent David Negron in a recent interview. “It was disbanded two years ago. For our purposes, the legislative route was the only route to go, because there was no regional board. Had there been one, we’d have gone that route.”
According to some PAEC board members, however, the proposed legislation doesn’t address that general problem. Rather than proposing legislation that establishes such a regional board, they say, the bill only allows for D89’s specific departure. Negron, however, said that the establishment of a regional authority is something legislators told him they were working towards.
PAEC Board members also argue that the legislation may not be necessary, since the West 40 Intermediate Service Center was given all the responsibilities of a regional board of education when the latter was disbanded.
Neither Willis nor Lilly could be immediately reached for comment. Among other local state lawmakers, Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th) voted in favor of the bill and Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (7th) didn’t vote on the measure at all.
Smith contends that D89 lobbied for the legislation without contacting PAEC’s administration or the cooperative’s member districts.
“They moved the bill forward without contacting the cooperative to get information from us, as well as from our parents and member districts,” Smith said. “We weren’t aware of it. So we were not informed as this bill moved forward.”
Negron, however, countered that the nature of the legislative process is public and PAEC officials could’ve discovered the proposed law through various means.
“We never led them to believe we were done with the withdrawal,” said Negron, who started with D89 last July.
“There were meetings shortly before I got here where we still made it clear that the district was pursuing this,” he said. “The legislative process is open to the public, so we weren’t hiding anything. There are a lot of legislative updates that go out to districts. We were in those and had been in those for a few months.”
Why D89 wants out
A June 2013 20-page evaluation of D89’s special education services strongly recommended that the district “bring back most, if not all of the students currently being served in a PAEC program to District 89 over the course of the next two years,” with the possible exception of the program for alternative education.
The evaluation, prepared by Sandi Cole, the director of the Special Education Leadership Program at Indiana University, offered a frank assessment of the district’s special education service delivery.
“While there are certainly exceptions throughout the district, there appears to be a general lack of willingness to share the responsibility to teach all students,” Cole wrote. “A dual system of education — special and general education — seems to exist in District 89.”
“Pulling students out of general education and separating them for instruction is a common practice in District 89,” she noted. “It is my observation that many more students with disabilities in District 89 could be educated in the general education classroom for all or most of the school day.”
“It is also my observation that many teachers believe that they currently do not have the necessary skills or training to make this happen and, in some cases, do not believe that students with disabilities can progress or learn in general education. There exists in District 89 little understanding of current research that would indicate otherwise”
Since Cole’s 2013 report, the district has made strides toward providing a more inclusive learning environment for students with special needs, said Negron, adding that the district has implemented autism and deaf/hearing programs at Lincoln School in Maywood and Jane Addams School in Melrose Park.
“This year, we probably have some of the most comprehensive professional development I’ve experienced in any district,” he said. “At the end of the day, all we want is what’s best for our kids.”
In numerous documents published since 2013, D89 has claimed that it will be able to provide all of its special needs students with improved services on its own, although some students may still need the services of PAEC. The district also claims that it will have more control over funds that are allocated for special education services and may save $1.2 million by providing those services on its own.
This school year, according to rough estimates provided by Negron and Smith, between 50 and 60 D89 students were enrolled in PAEC. That number is a steep drop from 2013, when more than 100 D89 students were being served by PAEC, according to Cole’s report.
“Gradually, our district has been scaling back, because we’ve been able to provide services within our school buildings,” Negron said.
According to a D89 restructuring impact analysis, the district will continue to send around 20 of “the most severely impacted students” to PAEC, but projects to serve approximately 80 special needs students in its school buildings. An estimated 10 new classrooms will be opened in existing school buildings to service the population.
The district noted that it would be better equipped to ensure that its policies and forms comply with federal and state mandates “and are updated on a timely basis;” and that it will have immediate access to special education student data and temporary records that is currently maintained by PAEC “irrespective or where or by whom services are delivered.”
For its part, PAEC provided its own analyses in direct response to D89’s financial analysis, which Negron said was prepared by the district’s administrators with the help of outside legal and financial assistance.
According to a document prepared by PAEC officials, D89’s financial rationale “is simply wrong.” The document claims that the district, instead of saving $1.2 million while operating special education services on its own, will actually “spend at least $200,000 more per year (and in likelihood, even more) to run its own special education program than it would to remain a member of PAEC and have its children served there.”
PAEC claims that, in its analysis, D89 failed to include some expense items, used incorrect expenditures, used “overly optimistic” reimbursement estimates and failed to include refunds that are “unique to PAEC membership.”
The district, PAEC claims, failed to properly account for additional personnel, such as psychologists, teacher tutors and physical therapists, it would need to hire,; and failed to include cost increases related to workers compensation and property/casualty insurance; among other omissions.
“This [withdrawal] will negatively impact the students in our program, because if they’re not part of PAEC, they will no longer automatically be eligible for our programs and it will financially impact our member districts,” said Smith.
In response to PAEC’s counterclaims about D89’s financial analysis, Negron said that the district’s analysis was based on budget numbers provided by PAEC and that he’s confident in the reality they project.
“We based that budget on information we received from PAEC,” he said. “Our analysis is based on hard numbers. I’m sure they’ll tell you the same, but we feel pretty solid in terms of where we stand.”
Negron said he wanted to correct the record about the district’s timeline for pulling out of PAEC. Even if HB 6252 is signed into law, he noted, D89 would still be required to complete and submit a comprehensive withdrawal statement justifying the need for pulling out of the cooperative to the Illinois State Board of Education — a process that could take up to a year.
“The process is still a ways away,” Negron said. “It will take several more months,” he said, adding that creating the withdrawal statement would be no easy task. He noted that the district is hoping to pull out of PAEC by the 2017-18 school year.
“I’ve heard people say we want to pull out within a couple of months,” Negron said. “That’s not accurate.” VFP
Scroll through the documents cited in this article below: