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Agreements allow special ed students to choose school

Most kids hate moving — new neighborhood, unfamiliar surroundings, new school. For students in special education programs, however, moving can be disruptive to the point of being detrimental to their education.

To help offset this, the South Kitsap School District plans to sign an inter-franchise agreement with Peninsula School District, which serves Gig Harbor. This agreement will allow students whose families move over the district border to remain enrolled in the district they started out in. Special Education Director Rita Reandeau said maintaining continuity in a special education program is crucial to a student’s progress.

The agreement was spurred when the exact situation previously described happened recently.

“We’re just looking to let (the student) continue in the classroom without another move,” Reandeau said. “It was just what would work best. (The student) is doing very well in the program and we don’t want to disrupt that.”

South Kitsap School District already permits open enrollment between districts for regular-track students. The only requirement necessary for a student who wants to attend, say, a Central Kitsap school, is that the school has room for him or her.

In fact, Reandeau said, when the double levy failed two years ago and many sports programs were cut, there was an exodus of South Kitsap students who wanted to attend school in a district that still had its programs intact.

Special education students, however, are a different matter. Because the students require trained staff, occupational therapists and other extra programs, they cost more to educate than a non-special-ed student.

The school district receives both state and federal funding which helps off-set these extra costs, but the money is only paid to the district in which the student resides.

Hence, the need for a franchise agreement.

Under the agreement, districts can bill each other for services rendered to out-of-district students, thereby minimizing the impact on the hosting district.

The system isn’t entirely even — Reandeau said educating a special-needs student frequently costs far more than the government provides, because each student gets a standard funding allotment regardless of need.

“These contracts cost a lot,” she said. “The goal is for it to come out even, but it doesn’t always.”

The cost differential changes, though, when the formula is applied to a student — or a group of students — who need programs South Kitsap School District doesn’t currently offer.

For at least the last 20 years, the school district has sent profoundly deaf students to the Tacoma School District for classes. Reandeau said the Tacoma schools have wonderful hearing-impaired programming which attracts students from all over Western Washington.

Although it isn’t cheap to pay for the four South Kitsap students who currently take classes there, Reandeau said its a lot cheaper — and better for the students — than the alternative.

South Kitsap could start a program for severely hearing-impaired students, but the cost of hiring the required staff and maintaining the necessary programming would be immense.

“If you started adding the costs of keeping them in their own district, it would cost more because you would have to hire more staff,” Reandeau said. “It’s very specialized. It takes more and more each year to find the right trained person.”

In addition, any program South Kitsap could put together would be small and would not benefit the students as much as one in which they could interact with many deaf students their own ages.

Each agreement must be re-approved annually and is only intended to remain in place as long as there are students actually traveling between districts. Some agreements, like the one with Tacoma, become practically permanent through necessity. Others, like the one with Peninsula, will likely only last as long as the student remains in school — or in the immediate area. Reandeau said students cannot simply switch school districts at liberty and most parents balk at the idea of sending their children too far from home.

“We try to keep them as close to their neighborhood school whenever possible,” Reandeau said, citing the need for children to be able to spend time with classroom friends outside of normal school hours.

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