No new facility: Superintendents agree

Peabody-Burns offers space for programs

Staff reporter

One resounding statement heard several times during a special meeting of the board of directors of Marion County Special Education Cooperative was the five school districts in Marion County are not interested in paying for a new special education facility.

The five superintendents told the cooperative board at the Nov. 7 meeting that a million dollar building was not possible with planned improvement projects and consolidation issues looming in the individual districts.

Marion USD 408 Superintendent Lee Leiker said four of the five superintendents had met prior to the Nov. 7 meeting to discuss options.

"We have come to the conclusion that none of the districts are in the position to spend money for new facilities," Leiker said.

Currently there are five students in the CLASS program and an average of 16-19 students in OASIS. Current facilities at Florence have been deemed educationally and physically inadequate by some members of the special education board, which is comprised of a representative from each of the five school districts in the county.

Issues of transporting CLASS students from one building to another for lunch without ADA accessibility and outdated learning tools for OASIS students were the primary reasons for the special education board to consider a new, larger facility.

During the Nov. 7 special meeting, the question was asked, "Can we incorporate special education programs into the current school facilities?" The school leaders suggested changing the makeup of OASIS by dividing it into separate programs by grade levels.

Special education cooperative director Chris Cezar said he was not in favor of splitting the OASIS program, going so far as to say doing that would "destroy" the successful, well-established program.

"Consistent procedures have to be followed with every staff member," he said. "Going back to the old contained program would not be an effective procedure."

Cezar continued that with the current OASIS program, students have improved their social skills and interact better with staff and students. Staff members also rely on each other for assistance and if the program was split, the staff also would be split, hampering efforts and jeopardizing the safety of all.

"That's why when students transition back to their districts, they have a higher success rate because of the intense program," he said.

The CLASS program for physically and mentally handicapped students could be divided, Cezar said, and the administration offices could stay in Florence.

Later in the meeting, Cezar said his "strong" recommendation was for OASIS to stay at the Florence facilities, even if they are inadequate, rather than to split up the program.

Hillsboro USD 410 Superintendent Doug Huxman agreed that new facilities are not affordable at this point.

"If we were growing with limitless funds, fine. But enrollment in the whole county has decreased which means a decrease in funding," he said.

"The financial portion is important," Jeri Kimball, superintendent of Centre USD 397 said, but she liked the idea of students being in the regular school setting.

Huxman said another consideration was security for others when integrating the OASIS program in the regular school facility. Principals at the individual facilities where OASIS would be located would be in charge of those students with regular students which could monopolize a great deal of time.

Huxman commented that existing buildings within the school districts would have to be remodeled and upgraded to accommodate the two programs anyway so what would the cost be to revamp and upgrade buildings at the Florence campus currently being used for the programs?

"That doesn't take care of the location which is an important issue to me," Peabody school representative and president of the cooperative board Doe Ann Hague said.

The special education board had looked at cost estimates to update the current facility and those estimates were $680,000, which would put the facility in pristine condition.

Rex Watson, superintendent of Peabody-Burns USD 398, said the political aspects of these decisions have to be addressed.

"It takes three votes around this table (of five representatives) to approve an action," Watson said. "Whatever we do is going to require a pretty universal buy-in because the five superintendents have to take the suggestions/decisions back to the seven-member boards where it takes four votes to approve changes.

"I don't think a million dollar facility is within our realm," he continued, but should look at the existing facilities and what can be retrofitted.

Watson said his district lost $130,000 last year because of a decrease in enrollment. However, with fewer students, there will be some space available next year for the special education programs.

There would be space available for the CLASS program and part of the OASIS program, if it could be split. Some remodeling would have to take place.

Discussion was heard regarding the blending of special education students with the general school population.

Integration could be provided to OASIS and CLASS students for art, physical education, music, use of the library and lunch room, and field trips if the special education classes are located closer to existing facilities.

Hague asked what would happen if the programs were discontinued.

"What would happen if we dissolve OASIS if they can receive a better education somewhere else?" Hague asked.

Alternative services are available but at a cost to the districts. Estimated daily costs per student is $125.

"I would be remiss to not advise the special education board that if we moved a program to another facility, the state would frown on having high school age students in an elementary school building," Cezar said.

He continued that recruiting staff members is difficult.

"I have dedicated staff members but if they are in a facility that makes it more difficult for them to manage students because of additional rules and regulations, . . . it just adds to the challenge of overburdening staff," Cezar said. "We keep throwing barriers out there and it's our job to remove them."

The superintendents then left the table to allow the special education board to discuss options.

Hillsboro USD 410 board member Deb Geis said she appreciated the input from the superintendents and realizes a new facility is not financially feasible.

After more discussion, it was determined that the board would entertain proposals from the school districts regarding the relocation of the programs.

Approximately 7,200 square feet would be needed for OASIS and 2,000 square feet for CLASS.

The board also determined that any changes probably would not occur until later next year. The board also asked Leppke to ask USD 408, the owner of the Florence facility, to wait until the end of next year before transferring ownership to the City of Florence. They also asked if there was a possibility USD 408 would be willing to lower the lease payment and wanted financial information regarding the use of the lease payments for upkeep of the facilities.

"We're all in this together," Hague said. "The district shouldn't be making money off of this."

The lease goes from July 1 to June 30 and USD 408 needs to know by Dec. 15 if the special education cooperative will sign the lease for the coming year.

Cezar was instructed to meet with the superintendents and report at the January meeting regarding ways to provide the best possible education with the available facilities.

Hague instructed Stewart and Cezar to obtain cost estimates for a new building to house the OASIS program.

The next special education board meeting is at 7 p.m. Monday at the Florence meeting room.

Because of the Christmas holiday, the December special education board meeting will be at noon Dec. 17 at the Florence location.

Brief history

Marion County special education programs moved to Florence in 1998. OASIS and CLASS programs began.

Prior to moving to Florence, physically and mentally handicapped students and students with behavior disorders were transported to agencies outside of the county. The school districts paid for those services.

Cezar said he began his tenure with the district in 2005, and discussions began whether the Florence facilities met the needs of the students.

The special ed board contracted with an architect to consider options regarding a new facility. A 16,000-square-foot facility was designed, which is the current size of the Florence campus.

During the past few months, the board has been looking at paring down the plans to see what was absolutely needed.

Consultant Kent Stewart was hired by the board to present an analysis and recommendations for improvements.

Stewart and Cezar met with cities and superintendents to discuss the issues.

Report from consultant

Stewart reported he had met with officials from the City of Hillsboro and City of Marion.

On Sept. 27, Stewart and Cezar met with Hillsboro Mayor Delores Dalke and Huxman. Hillsboro made the offer to fund up to $1 million for the cooperative facility.

On Oct. 9, Stewart and Cezar met with Marion Economic Development Director Jami Williams to hear proposals for potential financial incentives to move all or a portion of the cooperative to Marion and toured four potential sites.

Stewart said Hillsboro wanted all or nothing and Marion wanted some or all.

"Marion doesn't have the same level of enthusiasm as Hillsboro regarding assistance," Stewart said, partly because Marion's council appears to be more conservative and not willing to take risks.

Stewart said he expected responses from the cities that would be similar to paying the electrical bill for three years but was surprised that Hillsboro was willing to help with financing the project.

It was noted that Peabody also was interested but a meeting had not been planned.

Stewart suggested the possibility of asking Herington to join the cooperative. Currently Herington is using the Salina cooperative.

If enrollment continues to decline, more space could become available in the school districts which could house the special education programs.

Another concern of Stewart's was financing a new facility. Currently the special education cooperative pays $50,000 per year for the facilities. A bond payment would be a lot more than $50,000 per year, Stewart said.


Goessel USD 411 Superintendent John Fast suggested getting Tabor College involved.

"One idea that gets me excited is to connect the CLASS program with the Tabor College teacher education program," Fast said.

He added that he would rather the facilities be located at Hillsboro or Marion because they would be centrally located. In the end, decisions should be made in the best interest of the students.

Leiker said he would like more data to show whether programs are just as effective in the current location as in another location.

"How do we know this isn't the best option?" he asked.

Huxman said location is important and being located next to an existing school was important.

Marion USD 408 representative Lyle Leppke said the boards need to realize that if the programs are moved from the Florence facility, there are some amenities that will be sacrificed.

Comments were made that this issue has been discussed over and over during the past five years or more, partly because board membership and superintendents change which requires time for a new learning curve.

It was suggested the boards make incremental steps toward a solution.