Education and Government

Kent ISD to house special education programs

Center-based special education programs were managed by GRPS.

August 17, 2018
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Center-based special education programs in Kent County will be managed by another entity next year.

The Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education voted to transfer the $36-million programs and related services to the Kent Intermediate School District or another educational entity, effective July 1, 2019.

While not yet official, Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff said the plan is for Kent ISD to begin managing the programs, as is common practice in other areas. Kent ISD already provides educational support for the area’s 20 school districts in other ways, Caniff said, such as technical training, adult education and preschool programs.

Caniff said the students involved in the center-based programs include those with various needs, some physical and some cognitive or emotional. They receive education through one of these programs rather than in traditional schools.

Schools and programs involved include: Ken-O-Sha Home Community, Grand Rapids Oral Deaf Program, Early Childhood Special Education Center at Campus, Lincoln Developmental Center, Lincoln School, Pine Grove Learning Center, Community Transition Campus, Kent Education Center at Oakleigh, Kent Education Center at Beltline and Project SEARCH.

Though utilized by 20 schools in the area, GRPS has been managing the programs for decades, said John Helmholdt, head of GRPS communications, because the district “pioneered” these types of programs before they were commonplace.

Now that the area has grown, education leaders believe it’s the right time to transfer management.

“The rationale is really ensuring there is greater ownership and support from all 20 school districts for all the students in the center-based program,” Helmholdt said. “We want to make sure the students and their families have the highest level of support.”

Helmholdt said GRPS still will have a seat at the decision-making table, along with the other districts involved.

He said there should be “little to no impact to the students.”

Helmholdt said all the facilities, some owned by GRPS and some owned by Kent ISD, as well as staff, will be needed to continue facilitating programming.

Caniff said the parties still are discussing exactly how the transfer will occur and how it will affect the 424 teachers and staff, taking into account teacher contracts and other pieces.

“We know these jobs are not going away,” Caniff said. “They’re very much needed.”

Helmholdt said Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of GRPS, made certain the board took action early to ensure adequate time for decisions and resulting changes.

GRPS no longer will receive an estimated annual $1 million reimbursement for administrative work after the transfer takes place, said Larry Oberst, GRPS CFO, though he believes the district may be able to offset most of the loss. He said the district is reflecting these changes in its budget.

Funding for the program comes from a number of sources, not including the regular state public school funding: federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funds, state funds, Kent ISD special education millage and Kent County’s 2017 enhancement millage.

Whatever cost is left is billed to the participating districts in the form of tuition, based on the number of students participating in the programs.

That cost for GRPS has been roughly $1.3 million for its 480 students out of the 1,385 enrolled in the programs.

The other 19 schools typically pay a combined $2.5 million.

Most of the programs cost around $20 per student, Oberst said. The most expensive is a home-visit program that costs $334 per student.

Kent ISD is in the process of conducting its own independent review of center-based special education programming, which should help inform the transition plan, Weatherall Neal said. 

She wrote in a message to stakeholders: “I want to assure you that we are committed to working closely with the Kent ISD, local school districts, and all students, parents, staff, and other stakeholders to ensure the transition is as smooth and seamless as possible.”

Kent ISD’s independent consultant has scheduled a series of town hall meetings Aug. 29 and Sept. 5 for principals, staff and parents with information, questions and answers about the transition.

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