By Bob Skolnik
The administration and school board of LaGrange-Brookfield Elementary School District 102 have decided not to withdraw from the LaGrange Area Department of Special Education (LADSE).
After six months of pursuing plans to withdraw from LADSE, a special education co-operative serving 15 area school districts, District 102 will now remain part of the co-op after the LADSE board committed to develop a new model for billing its services to local school districts.
"This was never about service per se with LADSE or the quality of service," said District 102 Superintendent Kyle Schumacher at the Jan. 19 District 102 school board meeting when he announced his recommendation to stick with LADSE. "It was looking at ways for us to provide service in a cost-effective way."
On Jan. 18, the day before the District 102 school board meeting, the LASDE board, which is made up of the superintendents of member districts, unanimously decided to commit to changing its funding model.
LADSE board members Riverside-Brookfield High District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis and Western Springs Elementary School District 101 Superintendent Brian Barnhart will work with LADSE Executive Director Sheri Wernsing and LADSE's business manager to develop a new funding and billing model for the special education co-op.
"We're trying to figure out if there is a way to do a more fee-for-service approach," Skinkis said. "The idea is for Brian and I to work with the staff at LADSE to come up with a couple of recommendations and then bring it to the governing board this spring or early next fall."
LADSE bills districts based on their enrollment and the specific services they receive. Many costs are shared by all the member districts. The new model will likely be more closely tied to the specific services that districts receive from LADSE.
"We will be reducing the number of services that are paid for by the whole group and shared, minimizing the number of services that are shared and expanding the number of services that are purchased by individual districts," Wernsing said.
Wernsing said another option could be to move to a total-fee-for-service model under which a share of overhead costs is added to bills for specific services.
District 102 pays LADSE about $755,000 annually, and LADSE also receives about $320,000 in federal grant money earmarked to District 102 for special education.
Schumacher had projected that the district would save nearly $300,000 by withdrawing from LADSE and providing most of its special education services in-house. Schumacher says that he expects LADSE's yet-to-be-determined financial restructuring to reduce the annual savings that the district could expect by withdrawing from LADSE to less than $200,000.
He said that being part of LADSE does provide advantages and that District 102 would like to be part of the changes at LADSE and see how they play out.
"We felt it's worth it, at least in the short term to continue to be part of it to help explore that new model," Schumacher said.
Matthew Scotty, the president of the District 102 Board of Education, agreed, for now at least.
"We reserve the right to reconsider," Scotty said. "We're going to hold LADSE accountable to making the changes they promised to make."
Scotty said that he believed that District 102's steps toward withdrawing from LADSE influenced LADSE to commit to reworking its financial model.
"I think this is a good result for us," Scotty said. "We pushed the issue."
In recent years Hinsdale Elementary District 181 and Hinsdale High School District 86 have both withdrawn from LADSE.
Wernsing said that District 102's threat to withdraw was just one factor that led her board to commit to a changing its financial model.
"Of course it was a factor, but the truth is it's our responsibility to be responsive to the needs of every one of our member districts and we're not only doing it because of District 102," Wernsing said.
The decision to remain in LADSE was greeted with relief by many District 102 parents whose children currently receive services through the co-op. Since the school board voted last June to pursue withdrawing from LADSE, parents of students receiving services from LADSE have spoken up at school board meetings and public forums opposing the move and questioning the financial savings the district was projecting.
"Certainly we wanted to listen to what parents were saying," Schumacher said. "We took that into account certainly."
But Schumacher said the biggest factor in the district's decision to reverse course was LADSE's commitment to changing its financial model.
"I would say that the resolution that the [LADSE] directing board had was the biggest part of why the board decided to halt the process, but certainly parents sharing their concerns [was a factor]," Schumacher said.