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State may not support disbanding of co-op

Managing editor

Emotions have been running high for Marion County Special Education Cooperative employees since USD 408 made the decision March 8 to move forward with an interlocal agreement to disband the cooperative.

USD 397 Superintendent Jerri Kemble expressed her concerns Thursday at the special education board meeting.

She told the board that she had talked with the state Director of Finance, Brad Neuenswander, regarding the disbanding of the cooperative.

It will take more than the individual school boards and the special education board to approve the dissolution.

“Each board will have to have a plan and they have to be approved by the state,” Kemble said.

She continued that she was concerned with how information is being told to special education staff and she was concerned about the transparency of school districts.

Rumors are abounding, including USD 410 joining the McPherson Special Education Cooperative.

Earlier in the meeting, cooperative auditor Tom Thomas, president of Agler & Gaeddert, Chartered of Emporia, had reported that the payments received in the 2010 fiscal year for 2009 were posted in 2010. Kemble said that Neuenswander had told her that those payments should have been posted in 2009.

In Thomas’ report, he said this was the first year that the county cooperative had to deal with delayed payments. School districts have been dealing with it for three years.

“There’s more confusion because the payment wasn’t received until after the (2009) fiscal year had ended,” he said.

The fiscal year ended June 30 and the payment was received July 10.

There were no budget or statute violations found.

USD 408 Representative Lyle Leppke asked if the books were checked for this year. Thomas said they had not been.

Worst is yet to come?

Cooperative Director Chris Cezar showed various budget scenarios to the board including an influx of $350,000 if the city of Marion should agree to a lease-purchase contract.

With American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money gone in 2012, school districts and the cooperative could be in dire straits.

“Everyone will be in an uncomfortable position in 2012 with more cuts,” Cezar said.

For the cooperative, with more cuts of staff, the revenue also will be reduced since state funding is based on the number of employees and not the number of students.

Cezar also anticipates at least a 10 percent reduction in Medicaid aid.

Marion explains position

“We’re at a big disadvantage,” Leppke said, “because decisions are made at district board meetings and publicized before the next time special education co-op board meets.”

The real concern that USD 408 has, Leppke said, is whether a quality education can be provided to students when staff is being cut.

“I don’t know if this co-op functions well when people are cut,” Leppke said. “It’s hard for me to look at these numbers and know what to do when the state keeps changing.

“Time is against us.”

One option is to ask individual school districts for more money, Leppke said, but those districts would have to make more cuts to do that.

“Where one of us can’t find a plan, we’re stuck,” USD 397 Representative Terry Deines said. “We can’t appeal to the state again for three years.”

Debbie Geis, USD 410 representative, said she was told the trend of the state board of education was not to approve requests from school districts to withdraw from cooperatives.

Deines said he felt sorry for the teachers and wishes USD 408’s decision could have stayed in executive session.

Leppke said they had no choice but to vote on it in open session and some things cannot be decided in executive session.

“Either we’re going to commit with a lease-purchase agreement or by giving more money,” Leppke said.

“I know time is against us but we have to be responsible with our decision,” Geis said.

USD 398 Representative Terry Eberhard said he was surprised with Marion’s decision.

“I’m not condemning Marion for doing it,” he said. “The longer we put off giving our students the best possible education the more we lose.”

“Time is short and we need direction or an idea,” Geis said. “I don’t think we vote here to dissolve.”

It was reported that USD 398’s request to withdraw from the cooperative would be reviewed by the state as soon as April 13.

“We’ll have to know the decision so we can notify staff by May 1,” Cezar said, which is the state’s cutoff date for releasing staff for the coming school year. That deadline may be changed to June 1, if the state is so inclined.

The board agreed it was not ready to vote on disbanding.

Other business

A letter was sent to the board from former cooperative employee Margaret Bennett regarding a decision made by the board to terminate her. She said she did not know when the decision was made because she wasn’t notified.

Bennett was told that the board supported Cezar who was following board policy regarding a break in service but said there was no mention of that in the employee handbook.

“There are other policies not being followed,” she said and indicated the board needed to be more consistent.

There was no break in service, Bennett continued, except 2002 through 2004 when she served in the Peace Corps.

“I haven’t had another job since the beginning of OASIS,” she said. “I want the board to follow policy.”

The board then entered into a five-minute executive session with Bennett. Bennett exited the boardroom and Cezar entered. The session was extended a total of 15 minutes.

When the meeting reconvened, there were no decisions.

Cezar expressed his appreciation to the City of Marion for considering a lease-purchase agreement with the cooperative. Marion Administrator David Mayfield was at Thursday’s meeting and said the city will take bids from local banks for $350,000 over a 10-year period to determine if it is feasible. He told the board there would be no penalty for paying off the loan early.

Following nearly 90 minutes of executive sessions to evaluate Cezar’s performance, the board returned to open session and made no decisions.

The board also met for five minutes for negotiations.

The next regular meeting will be at 7 p.m. April 19. Agenda items will include initial resolutions for nonrenewal of nontenured staff.

Last modified March 18, 2010

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