Last week (10-23-13) the Eugene 4J School Board formally announced its intention to withdraw from Lane Education Service District. KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert looks into what the regional service agency provides and why the largest school district in Lane County made the decision to pull out.
In the early 1970's, the federal government passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This required every school to provide special education services. Many Oregon schools couldn’t afford these programs, --so the state decided to create a funding mechanism to regionally provide services for public school students, particularly those with special needs. The agencies are called Education Service Districts, or ESDs.
Today the number of offerings provided by ESDs has grown beyond special education and title programs to include "core" services-- including technology and instructional support.
According to the Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction, in the last biennium, about $388 million dollars funded ESDs around the state.
Larry Sullivan is superintendent of Lane ESD. He describes where the bulk of funding is applied in Lane County.
Sullivan: "Ninety percent of those funds are directed to services to schools provided by both Lane ESD programs and district-developed programs. Annually, 70% of these funds go directly to serve students with special needs throughout the county."
The Lane County school districts Sullivan’s talking about are large, mid-size and small—both urban and rural.
Sullivan: "In Lane County, we have six districts with less than 1,000 students and four districts with less than 2,000 students."
Lane ESD serves 16 school districts. But in July 2014, that number will decrease by one. Eugene 4J, the largest district in the county with about 16,000 students, just voted to withdraw from their service district and take most of their funding with them. This option became available to schools this year when the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 529, giving districts the option to go. Dr. Sheldon Berman is superintendent of Eugene 4J.
Berman: "I think this is the right thing to do. Now we are not being exclusive. One of the things that's a misconception about us withdrawing from the ESD--it doesn't mean that we're withdrawing from collaboration with other districts. We're gonna continue to have relationships that allow districts to, if they have a need to have a child in one of our programs, that's very possible."
There are 19 ESDs in Oregon and they provide services to almost every school district in the state. Funding for ESDs comes from local property taxes and a portion of State School Funds based on student population across each county or region.
Fifteen million dollars came to Lane ESD in fiscal year 2013. That amount is based on the number of students. Sullivan says, this year all the superintendents in Lane ESD region decided how much to spend on services like grants and technology. Sullivan says it was a unanimous decision, with one exception, Berman.
Superintendent Berman says since he took over the district two years ago, he's had concerns about Lane ESDs funding model. And, he feels ESD's special ed programs and instruction are too segregated.
"The transition nationally has been to more inclusive settings where students are well integrated into their schools, where the faculty has very close connections between special education teachers and regular education teachers. And where the principal and others in the school can do direct monitoring of the program."
This desire for more school district control is a big reason that 4J is withdrawing from Lane ESD. The other reason is the bottom line. Berman says 4J will continue to spend the same amount or more on special education…
Burmen:"But the area where we will have some financial gain is that we have not been receiving any of the core services, or very minimal core services.”
Without having to pay for those services and after funding in-house special education programs, Berman says 4J *could save almost a million dollars. He says the "extra" money would be used for things like reducing class size.
4J's withdrawal from Lane ESD is effective next July. It's been predicted the greatest impact of that move will be felt by mid-size school districts.
Doctor Berman: "My hope is that my colleagues can understand that 4J has been very generous in the past. And that right now, 4J has needs that are quite significant and the legislature understood that this is bringing equity to the funding across all districts. And this is an issue, as I see it, of equity."
Lane ESD's Larry Sullivan sees the other side of the coin.
Sullivan: "I think it's a different type of equity. You know, is equity applied to all?"
The move by 4J will affect the other school districts in Lane ESD. Sullivan says he wishes Eugene’s decision had been different. But, he says the other 15 districts in the county remain hopeful that through collaboration and creativity, Lane Education Service District will move forward. After all, there are still thousands of kids who count on it.