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Special ed co-op is back in the black

Should end year with money in reserve

Managing editor

It was a complete turnaround Thursday night when Marion County Special Education Cooperative board members were told that the special education cooperative was actually in the black and should end the fiscal year in June with a carry-over of funds.

It was quite a change from a couple of months ago when the cooperative director and board members were desperately searching for ways to maintain staff and serve students — even considering selling the cooperative building — anticipating a huge deficit at the end of the school year.

What was the difference?

USD 410 Business Manager Jerry Hinerman and USD 410 representative and cooperative board president Deb Geis worked diligently to figure out solutions to the financial woes of the cooperative.

In the end, hard work and financial expertise resulted in a rabbit of sorts being pulled out of the proverbial hat, and the cooperative should end the year with nearly $330,000 remaining in its $4 million budget.

And next year looks promising as well with the board projecting an estimated $222,000 surplus when the school year ends.

When USD 408 board members and special education cooperative representative Lyle Leppke presented the information Monday to Marion board members, some were skeptical.

When the cooperative board met each month this school year, a different budget was set before them by Marion County Special Education Cooperative Director Chris Cezar, more depressing than the month before. Discussion then followed regarding what was going to be cut and how much more collected from the five school districts to make it to the end of the year and through the next several years.

The special education cooperative was not immune to state budget shortfalls, which was part of the challenge. However, the agency did receive $460,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was used to balance this year’s budget and will be used next year.

“Are we going to see a different budget next month?” USD 408 Board Member Sarah Cope asked. “Are we going to revert back?”

Leppke assured Cope and the other board members that Hinerman had tweaked the budget for March and April with similar results, indicating that the current budget was not going to change drastically as had been presented in the past.

Prior to Leppke’s presentation, Regina Kimbrel and Melissa Zieammermann, employees of Marion County Special Education Cooperative, presented information to the board regarding the employee’s desire to remain as a countywide cooperative.

“We do not wish to point fingers, make accusations, or debate financial or personnel decisions that have been or will be made,” Kimbrel said. “(We’re) here to present information in a professional manner so that when decisions are made they will be in the best interest of the students we serve.”

Zieammerman said the cooperative was formed in 1980 because the districts believed the smaller organization would provide autonomy and could better meet the needs of students.

A colleague of Zieammerman’s worked in a large cooperative, located in an urban area, and serves rural communities. The colleague witnessed first-hand the effects of the absence of appropriate services in the rural communities. Because of a staff shortage, services were rendered not because they were appropriate or were needed by students but according to what was available.

“Best practice calls for parents, regular education staff, and special education staff to work together in the best interest of the student,” Zieammerman said. “It goes without saying that if it is in the best interest of all students our attention should be on education. When all is said and done, our hope is that we can get back to the business of doing what is best for our students in special education and working with our fellow professionals to provide the most appropriate and exemplary services.”

Information about services provided by the cooperative was distributed to board members.

Board president Chris Sprowls said the Marion district was leading the charge to disband because they believed it was what was needed to “save education.”

“We felt in the current setup, we were destroying it,” he said. “We thought we were doing the kids and employees a service.”

“Personally, I felt that employees were not given an opportunity to have a voice,” Kimbrel said. “Things were happening by the boards without any input from actual employees of the cooperative.”

She continued that the special education cooperative was the only agency or organization that has participation from all five school districts.

“You’ve got something really good going on here,” Kimbrel said. “To take it outside of the county seems like a step backward.”

Sprowls said he would agree if the management was good.

“Personally, I feel the cooperative was grossly mismanaged,” he said.

“It was never the staff’s problem,” USD 408 Board Member Keith Collett said.

“I’ve been with the co-op for 10 years,” Zieammerman said. “It breaks my heart to think I’m going to have to move someplace else to find a job.

“Whatever decision you’re going to make, make it so we can move on.”

After Leppke distributed the updated budget, he said this was by far the “best thing” we’ve seen in the past six months.

“As this board’s representative to the special education cooperative, I can echo that it has not been fun at all to watch the budgets that we’ve seen presented to us,” Leppke said. “We’ve looked for the hole in the bucket the past four or five months. A big ‘thank you’ to Deb Geis. She has worked and worked to make things happen and to find good, solid information for this board.”

Hinerman had spent hours digging through the budget, Leppke said.

“We believe this is the best information we’ve had in some time,” he said. “This is as accurate as we can make this budget look.”

The special education cooperative has actually spent less than budgeted and saved money, and will end the year on a positive note.

“This number is under the current staff, current facilities, with no changes,” USD 408 Superintendent Lee Leiker said. “It will be the same next year with no cuts or no changes.”

Sprowls said it was unfortunate that the situation got to the point that it did, especially for the employees.

“We had to stop the leak,” he said. “If we would have known this, it would have been different.”

“You base your decision on the information before you,” Leppke said.

After Cope asked if the budget would continue to change as it had in the past, Leiker said that these numbers finally make sense.

“None of us could figure out why there was a $1 million difference,” Leiker said.

“I’m not going to come back next month and say we lost $200,000,” Leppke said. “We can make decisions now knowing special ed is in the black. We have enough carry-over for this year and next year without selling the building and can retain the staff.”

“This is the first time I can say I’m comfortable about this budget.”

The special ed board will be faced with challenges in 2012 when a $200,000 deficit is anticipated.

Similar information was presented Monday evening to the other school districts in the county by special education cooperative employees.

The next regular cooperative board meeting will be at 7 p.m. Monday in the cooperative conference room at 1500 E. Lawrence, St., Marion.

Last modified April 15, 2010

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