Special education co-op updates operations
Sheri Wernsing, executive director of the La Grange Area Department of Special Education
Western Springs 101
La Grange 102
La Grange South 105
LaGrange Highlands 106
Hinsdale High School 86
Lyons Township High School 204
Riverside-Brookfield High School 208
Updated: February 4, 2013 6:05AM
LA GRANGE — The state’s first special education cooperative has undergone an extensive makeover to make way for the future.
In anticipation of two member school districts opting out, the La Grange Area Department of Special Education restructured its organization and financial policies for the 2012-13 school year.
“We wanted to take a look at are we providing the right services for our members,” said Sheri Wernsing, executive director of LADSE. The co-op, formed in 1957, serves 13 elementary and three high school districts in western Cook and DuPage counties.
One of the major changes enacted is how federal funds from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are applied. Previously, the funds were pooled, but now each district retains control over its allocation.
“In the past 100 percent of the IDEA funds stayed with LADSE and were applied to services,” Wernsing said. “In theory that’s a good thing, but it was time for a change, and we changed. No district’s dollars are used to subsidize another district.”
In 2011, Hinsdale-Clarendon Hills Elementary District 181 withdrew and decreased its share of LADSE’s budget by more than $1.4 million. Hinsdale High School District 86 has begun the yearlong separation process, and member districts will be voting on the request in January.
In anticipation of losing at least $600,000 from District 86, LADSE is proposing to trim $888,000 through a combination of cutting six full-time staff positions, service options to districts and non-personnel items.
Although District 86 spends $1.1 million in purchased special education services, a reduction in staff and other budget cuts is expected to maintain the same rate for billing services with little impact for 15 remaining districts, Wernsing said.
Despite major cost-cutting and restructuring measures, LADSE’s financial outlook remains uncertain with the potential loss of major federal funds.
“IDEA dollars are part of the proposed federal spending cuts by the end of the year,” Wernsing said. “If we do fall off the fiscal cliff as a nation, we’re expecting a 9 percent reduction on federal IDEA dollars, beginning the next fiscal year, July 1.”
Further fiscal uncertainly also looms in state funding as lawmakers wrestle with pension costs and education funding, she said.
Member districts each contribute a proportionate share of LADSE’s $20.2 million budget to serve 3,757 students with special needs. Services include autism, behavioral or social-emotional and assistive technology consulting, as well as support for families and vocational training.
Every district uses these services in different amounts each year, so LADSE recently began tracking districts’ use on an annual basis, Wernsing said.
Western Springs Elementary District 101 Superintendent Brian Barnhart expressed support LADSE after helping revise the organization.
“We’re definitely stronger being a member of the co-op, no question,” Barnhart said.