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GRPS board approves moving special education programs to Kent ISD

With a vote of 7 to 1, the Board of Education moved to transfer administration of the center-based special education programs to the Kent Intermediate School District on Monday, August 6, 2018.
GRPS board meeting on August 6, 2018

GRPS board meeting on August 6, 2018 /Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

Underwriting support from:

Kent ISD Town Hall Listening Sessions

KISD is hosting town halls "to surface concerns and recommendations related to the transition of Center Based Program operation to Kent ISD. This is an informational gathering meeting therefore we will not be providing answers or information regarding the transition process."

More info can be found here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

  • 3:00-4:00 PM - PRINCIPALS (Board Room)
  • 4:30-6:00 PM - STAFF
  • 7:00-8:30 PM - PARENTS

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

  • 9:30-11:00 AM - PARENTS
  • 1:00-2:30 PM - PARENTS
  • 3:30-5:00 PM - STAFF
  • 5:30-7:00 PM - STAFF

On Monday, August 6, 2018 Grand Rapids Board of Education voted to transfer center-based special needs programs administration over to the Kent Intermediate School District, or KISD. The vote was 7-1 with Dr. José Flores voting no.

Over the last year, conversations between the school district and a parents group advocating for their special needs students have gotten increasingly contentious. Parents have accused the district of not caring for the needs of their children properly, while the district has stood by both the special needs director and Superintendent Neal. Neal recently threatened to sue one of the parents for defamation.

At the board meeting last night, a handful of parents again came forward to express their concerns with how the district has handled the special education programs and the complaint process itself. During the comment time on board matters, commenters alternated between chiding the board for poor handling of issues in the past to expressing some hope or relief that the program is being transferred to KISD.

Michael Bukala is running for the GRPS school board. He claimed that in his years as a GRPS teacher he was told to “lose” special education paperwork and said, “Throughout my 28 years at Grand Rapids Public Schools I have had the experience of being told to lose special ed paperwork which is against the law.” Later in his statement he blaimed Superintendent Neal for the problems and called her “quite vindictive” and “an accomplished actress.”

Dr. Wendy Falb, board president, interrupted his comments saying the comment period was for comment on board items, not aspersions about people’s character. Bukula responded, “But I just think how the district is operating, how they treat children and teachers-you have no idea how they treat them and I’ve said in a letter ‘you mistreat children and you mistreat teachers.’ You don’t really care how the district treats them. You deny them services. I tell the truth and I’m retaliated against because I was forced to tell the truth and you didn’t like what you heard.”

Later in the meeting during the board’s discussion of the proposal to transfer operations of the center-based special education programs to Kent ISD, Dr. José Flores expressed the only opposition to the idea, saying, “I really think we’re moving hard-pressed and fast to approve this resolution without appropriate community input and consideration on it.” Flores mentioned concerns about how the transfer would impact the special needs students and teachers and asked the board to reconsider.

The board did not seem to have a full understanding of how this transfer worked or would impact the district. Board member Katherine Lewis clarified with Neal that last night’s vote was the final vote and asked questions about what would happen next in the process. Dr. Tony Baker asked district staff how the transfer of operations for the center-based special education programs to Kent ISD would impact the district’s budget.

Larry Oberst, the district’s Chief Financial Officer, said, “The funding for the center-based program is complicated.” He explained that the district is reimbursed by the state and other revenue for the program based on the number of students, but that the full cost to administer the program is not covered.

“So GRPS gets essentially reimbursed for those dollar amounts. And that’s approximately about a million dollars a year. And that’s the amount we’re talking about that would not be allocated back over to us if we stopped administering the center-based program. We believe we can recoup the vast majority of that million dollars in indirect costs.”

Lewis asked, “If at the end of the year, if we can’t reach an agreement, what happens then?” and it was again explained that the vote before the board was the final agreement to transfer the program. Lewis also mentioned that the transfer seemed like a good idea because, “Obviously, we’ve not fulfilled the expectations of some of our parents,” to which Falb answered, “I don’t want to conflate the comments that have been made here with this decision.”

Lewis responded, “Obviously there have been issues, for whatever reason there have been issues and if we’re going to do this, some of those issues can be accommodated.”  

The board then passed the resolution 7 to 1.

James White, parent of a special needs student in the district said, “I’m in favor of proposed transition to KISD. I’ve got a lot of concerns about how this is done. We were made promises as related to Straight School what it was supposed to be and that was, for lacking a polite way of saying it, we were very well misled as to what the expectation was. I am far less concerned it will be seamless as I am with it being transparent. I am more concerned with transparency as what is happening with this process and what the ultimate outcome is. As parent of a young adult in their 20’s, he doesn’t have the time to wait. It is very reminiscent as we talk about people with special needs in this process as when we talk of integration of the schools many, many moons ago.” White expressed he was not only concerned about his student, but all the special needs students he interacts with as a Special Olympics coach and other activities. “These kids have potential, they have value. And this I think is the role of the board, we have to be more interested in the small things these kids can contribute to society and make us a better community than the things that limit them.”

Public comments included Kelly Hugh’s about air conditioning needs in some of the school district’s buildings, considering the August 20, 2018 start date this year. “Starting the school year in August will likely lead to two weeks less of learning this year for many schools in the district, especially those students in buildings taller than two stories such as Campus Elementary, Grand Rapids Montessori and Central Innovation High Schools.” She cited Harvards’ ‘Heat and Learning’ study and suggested “If you have any questions please feel free to go to any of the three schools I listed or any of the others and maybe spend an hour trying to work on the third or fourth floor,” noting she’s passed out when volunteering on the third floor of her daughter’s Montessori school.

Mary Jo Thompson echoed Hugh’s concerns about air conditioning and also concerns about the bonds between teachers and autistic students during the program transfer.

The district was asked for comment for this article on air conditioning at the schools but has not responded yet.

GRPS Board of Education meeting minutes can be found here, though they have not been updated since the June 18, 2018 meeting. Videos of the board meetings can be found on YouTube here.

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