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Educators create Special District for special education

Local and regional school districts will soon band together to create a special district for the purpose of combining Special Education resources to benefit some of the area's neediest students.

At its March 13 meeting, the Cloquet School Board voted to accept a Joint Powers Agreement drawn up among members of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, for the purpose of better enabling education for certain special needs students.

The agreement will allow for combining of resources for Setting IV special education students, defined as those students who cannot spend any time during the school day in a regular school setting.

Minnesota Statute 471.58 allows districts to combine resources for "the purpose of providing an area-wide approach to problems which demand coordinated and cooperative actions."

"These are low-incidence special needs students," Cloquet Schools Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said. "They are special education services or students with disabilities which are not more common and therefore usually have far fewer numbers of students affected. A Joint Powers Agreement allows school districts to bring these students together for instruction."

Districts from Carlton County to Lake County are able to take advantage of the new collaboration.

"It will make things more efficient," Scarbrough added. In special education settings such as these, you can get a ratio down to three or four students per teacher, and in some cases with a joint powers agreement you have more than one teacher who is working with a student with the same disability. These students can be pretty isolated otherwise."

Scarbrough estimates that approximately 40 students will be covered by the new arrangement from Willow River to Two Harbors.

"There's a real need for more Setting IV classes, and there is a financial benefit for setting up such a Joint Powers Agreement as well," Scarbrough added.

Participating districts include all Carlton County districts as well as Proctor, Hermantown, Willow River, McGregor and the Lake Superior School District in Lake County.

There are financial benefits for the participating districts as well.

"State legislation has recently capped the increase of special education revenues for a district to no more than 4.6 percent than revenues received in the previous school year," Scarbrough said. "A low-incidence special education program needed in a district could very easily put that district over the 4.6 percent cap. Once that cap is reached, any funding required for a district's special education services has to come from the district's general education revenues."

This may lead to financial hardship for those districts who have to provide services not needed in previous years, but Scarbrough notes that "dollars spent in a joint powers agreement to provide low incidence special education services are not counted against a school district's cap."

Scarbrough noted that Cloquet is likely to host such an arrangement through its existing special education facilities at Garfield School, but the sites of education may vary depending on where the demand for them is located.

"We have to be cognizant of that," he said. "If there are more kids needing this service along the North Shore, you can't drive them 80 miles one way. We have to go where the most demand is and where facilities are available."

Scarbrough said planning and details are still being worked out and the program could commence as early as the start of the 2017-18 school year if work is completed prior to that time. The project may be delayed to 2018-19 if appropriate details are not worked out in time.