NORTH CRAWFORD - Special education, in a variety of ways, was a major theme at the meeting of the North Crawford School Board, held on Wednesday, Jan. 16. The long term financial health of the district, as well as consideration of the recently-completed State of Wisconsin ‘Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding’ were also compelling topics occupying the board’s attention.
North Crawford experienced an influx of students into their special education program in the 2018-19 school year. This has put a strain on the district in a variety of ways. Financially, it has required the addition of staff to meet special needs, develop assistive technologies and support the school’s early education programming.
Kim Littel, an experienced special education professional, was brought on as the district’s Special Education Director for the current school year. Littel will finish out the school year in her position, but her resignation was tendered and accepted by the board at the meeting. The board also accepted the resignation of Peter Hueser, who also worked in special education for the district, effective on Friday, Jan. 18.
For school districts across the state, special education is an increasingly costly line item in budgets stressed by cuts to education funding over the last decade. For instance, within North Crawford’s $6 million annual budget, education of just one special education student can cost as much as $65,000.
According to Superintendent Brandon Munson, the recently completed State of Wisconsin ‘Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding’ took up the issue in their deliberations of potential changes to the state’s Special Education Categorical Aid appropriation.
The report explains that special education categorical aid reimburses school districts, independent charter schools, Cooperative Educational Service Agencies (CESAs), and County Children with Disabilities Education Boards (CCDEBs) for a portion of the costs for educating and transporting pupils enrolled in special education.
Statewide funding for special education aid to school districts for the 2018-19 school year will cost $368.9 million. Individual school districts are reimbursed for expenditures in the prior school year at the rate of 24.5 percent of total dollars spent on special education.
Responding to a resounding chorus of a need for more support from testimony heard around the state, recommendations for significant increases to the rate of reimbursement are included in the report.
The three recommendations under consideration are for reimbursement percentage increases from the current 24.5 percent to 30 percent, 33 percent and 50 percent. These increases would respectively produce an increased state budget expense of $45.1 million, $74.7 million and $119 million.
Both Munson and District Business Manager Demetri Andrews expressed optimism that the legislature would act on an increase in special education categorical aid in the upcoming two-year state budget process. If enacted, the increase in spending has great potential to provide relief to school districts’ efforts to provide needed service to students with special needs.
One key service that school districts provide to students with special needs is assistive technology. The technology generally falls into two broad categories – communication technology and other technology.
Mindy Biege, Speech and Language Pathologist for the elementary, junior and high schools was featured in the ‘District Showcase’ part of the board’s agenda. Biege demonstrated various assistive technologies the district offers to special needs students, and talked about her opportunities for learning and innovation, as well as her efforts to provide quality upgrades in a frugal manner.
Many of the students with whom Biege works have severely limited abilities to communicate or are only beginning to learn to use the communication abilities they have.
Biege demonstrated the use of large button switches that could be used to activate communication devices, electronic appliances, and computer-learning programs, for students that otherwise lacked the motor skills or mobility to perform these tasks.
“What these devices do is give kids control over their activities in school and reduce their dependence on others,” Biege said. “The assistive technologies we are able to provide allow our students to pursue learning, and actively participate in classes such as cooking and even photography.”
In addition to the switches, Biege also identified a host of other communication devices offered by the district. Perhaps the most amazing of these is the eye-activated computer-learning device, which allows students with severely limited motor skills to pursue learning.
New propane bus
A new full-size propane bus will round out the district’s fleet, and should be in service before the end of the current school year.
The new bus will feature a lift, replacing the district’s current lift bus, which has almost 200,000 miles on it. Because the bus will have removable seats in the front area near the lift, it will allow the district to transport up to four students in wheelchairs at a time and allow for participation in school trips.
“We always have to have a backup lift bus in our fleet, so we’ll retain the bus we’re currently using and sell the two smaller backups we currently have in the fleet,” Munson explained. “Since our former Transportation Director Stan Turben is the driver for the lift bus, he will continue to baby it along as he has done so well all these years.”
The cost of the new bus will be $100,528. A $6,000 grant, as well as an increased amount of High Cost Transportation Aid from the state for next year will help to offset the cost of the purchase for the district.
Following out the special education theme of the meeting, the school board also acted on superintendent Munson’s recommendations for setting the district’s open enrollment space projections.
“We have ample space in our regular 4K-12 program to accept open enrollments for the 2019-20 school year,” Munson said. “However, based on the large number of special education enrollments into the district this year, I’m recommending that we set our district’s special education enrollment space as being at maximum capacity.”
The board acted to approve Munson’s recommendations as presented.
North Crawford Business Manager Demetri Andrews reported to the board on the results of a recent five-year financial health analysis he had recently completed for the district.
“North Crawford is currently in an excellent position with our fund balance at 40 percent,” Andrews explained. “However, given the assumption of no changes in the district’s current level of funding and projected increases in expenses, the analysis shows that this fund balance has potential to be completely depleted in five years.”
That being said, Andrews was quick to explain that the likelihood of that happening is not high given changes in state government and the results of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding. Andrews believes it is very likely that rural school districts will realize revenue increases in various forms of state aid in upcoming years that will change the financial forecast for the district dramatically.
“I am in constant communication with thought leaders in the Department of Public Instruction, and use that information to refine my projections constantly,” Andrews explained. “I foresee significant changes in per pupil aid, special education categorical aid, sparsity aid and high cost transportation aid, which if approved, will have a great impact on our district.”
Even so, the school will also face upcoming capital expenditures on infrastructure such as a new roof, which may lead them to consideration of a tax levy referendum such as other districts have done in recent years.
“When I first started with the district, our long-term financial forecast at the time indicated that the district would be out of money in seven years,” Superintendent Munson said. “It didn’t happen then, and I don’t foresee that happening in the next five years either. We just have to wait and see what kinds of help for rural school districts the next two-year budget will offer, and then go from there.”
In other business, the North Crawford School Board:
• learned of a $2,500 donation to help our struggling families pay their food service balances from the National Christian Foundation of Kentucky
• heard that North Crawford was selected to participate in a mandatory National Assessment of Education Process testing
• heard that Jim Dworschack, Terry O’Donnell and Mary Kuhn’s seats on the board will be up for election in April, with the two top vote-getters serving three year terms, and the third serving a two-year term to complete the term of Jesse Swenson, who resigned. Ed Heisz and Jill Stefonek have filed papers to run in the election, as have all three incumbents
• approved substitution of a band trip to see a musical at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis in June for the previously scheduled trip to see ‘Hamilton’ in Chicago.