Truman Superintendent Lisa Shellum sits with Tina Raske, current special education teacher, who will also take on ECSE (early childhood special education) in the coming school year; Sara McMonagle, new Special Education Director for next year; and Myra Heckenlaible-Gotto, new school psychologist for next year. McMonagle will mentor Shellum as she works toward her SpEd Director license.
Updated March 8, 10:10 a.m.
BY NIKKI MEYER
“At bigger schools you’d likely see something like this,” said Truman Superintendent Lisa Shellum, “but I don’t know of another school out there our size that’s doing what we’re doing.” And Shellum has a lot of contacts.
Since the end of 2018 Shellum and several others have been hard at work creating a new structure for the Special Education (SpEd) services at Truman Public Schools (TPS). The change comes after the Southern Plains Education Cooperative (SPEC), of which Truman (ISD 458) has been a member since the co-op’s 1973 creation, moved to purchase and renovate the former Lincoln Elementary School building in Fairmont at an estimated cost of nearly $11 million dollars. As of July 1, 2019, Truman will no longer be a member of SPEC.
By law every school district in the state is required to provide certain special education services to qualifying students. Many small schools, however, do not have enough students with needs to afford hiring the necessary staff. Instead, they may join or purchase services from a special education cooperative. So, for example, instead of trying to find, hire, and pay for someone to come for a few hours twice a week to work with the one or two students who need occupational therapy, the cooperative hires an occupational therapist and the member schools are able to contract for the amount of occupational therapy they require in a given school year. The cooperative then bills the school, along with receiving money from the district in others ways as defined by the state, to pay the service providers.
Currently SPEC has its administrative offices in Fairmont and leases the former Winnebago Elementary School for use as an Alternative Learning Center (ALC) by special education students who are level 4, meaning those whose IEP (individualized education plan) stipulates they are best served by spending 50% or more of their school day in a learning environment outside a traditional school. Last spring SPEC’s director, Dr. Sarah Mittelstadt, made presentations to the member schools on the possibility of purchasing the Lincoln building, which would be large enough for both classes and offices.
After reviewing Mittelstadt’s numbers, the Truman school board voted against the purchase. Shellum concluded at the time, “It would have taken a great majority of [Truman’s] lease levy authority dollars for the next 20 years, plus upwards of $10,000 a year out of the general fund... staying with the co-op wasn’t fiscally responsible to our own district and taxpayers, considering we currently only have a handful of students who attend.”
With Truman as the lone “no” vote, SPEC offered the district $50,000 to withdraw from the co-op, allowing SPEC to move forward with the purchase. Truman agreed to withdraw as a voting member district.
After the vote to withdraw at the end of the school year, then-superintendent Dr. Virginia Dahlstrom and the members of the board began looking at other possible providers for SpEd services. As Shellum transitioned into the role of Superintendent, she also completely reorganized the classrooms inside the school in anticipation of the direction the district would be moving when it came to special education. A ‘Specialty Floor’ was created, which houses the SWIS (School Within a School) program, Title I programs (and Title I teacher Laurie Sherman’s therapy dog), the Special Education room, and a Sensory and Therapy Room. “We take care of our own,” Shellum stated. “We’re getting to keep [kids who previously went to the ALC] here in our school building and have a closer and more positive relationship with them.”
In December Truman got the response that it was “too big” to be absorbed by existing staff and “too small” to warrant hiring additional staff at the educational district first approached in May. Tom Melcher, the Director of the Program Finance Division at the Minnesota Department of Education, suggested after looking at the SPEC withdrawal agreement specifications that Truman go back to SPEC and get the same services as it had as a member district. The withdrawal agreement states, “Truman shall be considered a non-member district for any services purchased from SPEC after the effective date of withdrawal.” Members of the Truman school board met with SPEC representatives, however in late January Mittelstadt notified Truman, “We decided it would not be possible for us to provide any services for Truman for 2019-20; we just have too many unknowns to make commitments.”
Though Truman had approached the two educational cooperatives, other possible plans were also in the works while waiting for answers from the co-ops. Inside of a month Truman independently secured agreements with providers for every service the district and its students require which are not currently provided by TPS staff. “Being able to pull all of this together for a school our size is amazing,” Shellum said. “We are basically our own co-op.”
The new framework for services comes with multiple benefits for the school. First, the cost of services is in-line with what Truman was paying through SPEC, though the school will see an increase in the amount of time providers are spending with students. Most notably, speech and language services will go from 2.5 days per week to full time, with new pathologist Allison Seeman also acting as a literacy coach for small groups and as a social/emotional group leader for students. Shellum will be working toward her Special Education Director licensure, with Sara McMonagle working in Truman 2-3 days a month as director and mentor to Shellum. School psychologist Myra Heckenlaible-Gotto will hold office hours once a month and perform not only student evaluations but also act as a student group leader and provide staff support for academic needs.
The district will also recapture money that the state previously sent straight to SPEC, and is able to acquire funds that were previously lost to the district, which will have a positive effect on the district’s general fund. Truman will hold all of the teacher contracts and thus be able to claim all of the aid that previously went to SPEC for the instructors. In the past several years SPEC has also been claiming three-year-old students that were in Special Education and the district was not receiving this money. SPEC has been slowly transitioning this over to all SPEC member districts, so Truman will also be able to claim and keep 100% of this aid. The change in the inflow and outflow of funds will have a positive impact on Truman’s financial plan, about which Shellum stays very mindful and positive.
“We have so many good things going on here in Truman and we don’t want to miss opportunities to improve our students’ education while saving taxpayer funds,” Shellum stated. She has also looked at opportunities for general education programs that could both increase offerings and see cost-savings. “I take opportunities to connect with our area superintendents, inviting conversations about how our districts can work together.” Shellum and the board have secured a meeting with a neighboring district to begin discussions on potential future educational opportunities.
Truman’s enrollment continues to rise, with the school gaining several new students since the start of 2019. Enrollment in the 3 and 4-year-old preschool classes, as well as the pre-school census, indicate strong numbers for incoming classes. “That speaks well to the quality of education we are offering,” Shellum said.
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