It’s been over a year since O’Fallon School District 203 pulled out of its contract with Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative to save money. And while OTHS is still obligated to help pay off debt the cooperative incurred while it was a member, leaving has been a sound financial move for the district, said Darcy Benway, O’Fallon 203 superintendent.
“During 2014-2015, OTHS made $496,383 in payments to BASSC for about 11 students served,” Benway said.
BASSC is an educational cooperative evaluating, educating or providing therapies to students ages 3-21 who may be hearing impaired, autistic, or have social, emotional or learning disabilities.
“We often think of kids with special needs as slower learners, but that’s not necessarily the case with today’s special needs population. They can be very bright, academically, but just have challenges that would require either modified accommodations — or in some cases, restrictive — from the regular population,” Benway said.
The District 203 Board of Education passed a unanimous resolution on June 18, 2015, to withdraw from BASSC, effective July 1, 2016. However, the district still owes BASSC money, which it intends to pay in installments.
“OTHS is planning on paying the $63,769.28 over the next four years,” Benway said.
Benway said the true savings estimate for the district was difficult to put a hard number on, because BASCC changed its contribution formula last year, and OTHS had used less services as it was winding down its participation with the co-op. But at best, leaving BASCC was worth $336,000 this year, Benway said, at worst $145,000, depending on how one formulated the comparison to prior years and services provided.
But no matter how you slice it, and despite the legacy costs, Benway said that leaving was a good move — at the bank and in the classroom.
“Too much for too little”
The district was simply paying “too much for too little” when it came to its membership with the co-op, according to Benway.
At the time O’Fallon decided to withdraw, there were 24 BASSC member districts. Of the two dozen members, O’Fallon was paying the fifth-highest amount of its federal special education funding disbursements — up to 45 percent — to the cooperative.
“BASSC had a crazy calculation. And to this day, I don’t understand it. But they took a portion of our federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) money,” Benway said.
The problem was that, prior to 2016, financial contributions were based on each district’s size — in both enrollment and tax base — not in services used.
“Cost allocations were less favorable to the larger districts, and the smaller districts benefited from that,” Benway said.
Those calculations changed after O’Fallon’s withdrawal.
Jeff Daugherty, BASSC executive director, said the pooling of resources based on size has always “been the basic structure of a cooperative.”
“The cooperative has experienced very little impact since (OTHS’) withdraw. Structural services are still flowing, and the coop is doing tremendous,” Daugherty said.
Benway said the district’s long participation in BASSC was a commitment by prior boards and administrators when “times were different.”
When the district had a small number of special ed students, it made more sense to pool resources with other districts, she said.
“If you go back 10-15 years, O’Fallon was much smaller. So when you’re a smaller school, you obviously don’t have as many special needs kids,” Benway said.
But as the district’s overall enrollment has grown, so too has its special education needs. District 203’s overall special education enrollment is 304 students this year, 13 percent of the total student population. Of those students, 71 are at the Milburn campus and 169 at Smiley. There are 310 students with individualized education programs, of which 89 are at Milburn and 215 at Smiley.
If students still need service OTHS can’t provide, Benway said they can be shuttled to another facility for educational programing without extra administrative costs to the district. Hope School, Illinois Center for Autism and The Menta Group are some of the outsourced facilities still used by six OTHS special ed students currently.
Daugherty said that BASSC continues to offer all the same services.
“Like I said, the impact has been minimal, but actually our instructional services have grown since the withdrawl,” he said.
An example of that growth, Daugherty said, is the addition of two instructional classrooms — an autism focused one and a dayschool program called Pathways for emotional/behavioral needs.
“The 23 remaining districts are doing very well,” Daugherty said.
O’Fallon District 90, Central 104 and Shiloh 85 are still BASSC members.
Benefits to students
While the decision to leave BASSC saved the district money, it has also been beneficial for the students, school officials said.
“We had three students graduate (in May), and it’s been a great transition year, and they had wonderful transitions from their other programs to us,” said OTHS special education teacher of 11 years Tiffany Niedringhaus, who also serves as the special education coordinator.
Now, rather than attending classes out of the district, those former BASSC students are now served in-house through the Students Optimizing Alternative Resources (SOAR) program. Educators at BASSC actually helped OTHS set up the program.
“They were very cooperative and helpful in our first-year launch, so we’re very appreciative of their support in our first-year launch of SOAR,” Benway said.
In the SOAR program, there are currently about 17 students divided among three OTHS classrooms.
“If you set all this financial stuff aside, the real benefit is what it’s done for our kids — and that is our kids are being educated in the home school as much as possible, rather than transporting them to an off-site location,” Benway said.
That also means kids also have opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities and build relationships with their peers at OTHS.
“Some of our higher-performing kids actually have the ability to maybe push out into a regular ed art or music class, where BASSC doesn’t have any regular ed classes. So, once they were shipped to BASSC, they were limited to special ed —and only special ed,” Benway said.
Working in tandem, SOAR and regular classroom teachers have teamed up to develop curriculum for those special needs students with a pace and rigor that was challenging, but also adaptable, Niedringhaus said, the goal being to provide support for growth while also keeping students from being secluded.
“We developed a system where the students, via compliance and behavioral success, were able to earn their way out,” Niedringhaus said, adding “With having the kids within our own buildings, we were able to build in a lot of teachable moments that they may not have gotten when they were isolated in another school.”
The Progress attempte to reach out to parents of specail ed students, but could not get any to agree to an interview.