Walworth County schools will fund special ed

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published September 11, 2006, 10:08 a.m.)

Seven letters from eight school boards share one message: We'll do it, but we don't like it.

Several Walworth County school districts sent letters to the county board saying they will go along with a plan to provide their own special education programming in order to maintain a county-run school for children with disabilities.

In April, the county board reached a compromise - informally referred to as the "Russell Amendment" - to preserve Lakeland School.

Supervisor Nancy Russell suggested the county eventually stop funding special education in each of its 15 school districts to have enough money to ensure Lakeland's continued survival.

"The reason I made that amendment was because I felt that if we were going to go ahead and build a new school and invest that kind of money, we had to have some assurances that the program would have sustainability," said Russell, chair of the county's finance committee.

Without the amendment, made at the April board meeting, the county might not have received the necessary three-quarters vote necessary to approve bonding for the $22 million school. The county was already facing a double-digit percentage increase in its special education budgets.

The new school was approved by a 23-1 vote, with the caveat that it transfer in-district special education costs to the county's 15 school districts.

Over the next 10 years, the districts will absorb costs for 73 teachers and 36 aides currently on county payrolls. Those positions teach students with disabilities in neighborhood schools.

School boards and administrators from Linn Joint 4, Linn Joint 6, Sharon, Genoa City/Bloomfield, Walworth, Fontana, Lake Geneva Joint 1 and Lake Geneva/Genoa City Union High School sent letters to the county board expressing concerns over the plan. They feel the transfer of the services will disproportionately increase local school taxes as opposed to how much it will lower or slow the increase of county taxes.

"While our local tax levies will increase to cover the cost of current services, there does not seem to be a county plan to reduce its tax levy for the services it will no longer provide," the Linn Joint 4 School Board wrote. "If the county does not decrease its levy when it is no longer providing district special education services, then our taxpayers will pay twice for the cost of transferring the services to our district."

The Sharon School Board said the impact on taxpayers would be "breathtaking."

"Both boards strongly support the building of the new Lakeland School and feel they are held hostage by the 'Russell Amendment,'" Administrator James Gottinger wrote on behalf of the Lake Geneva Joint 1 and Union high school boards.

"We have appreciated the high quality staff, administration and services we have received from Walworth County and look forward to working with them in this transition process. The kids will not be the losers ... we won't have it. The losers will be the taxpayers," Gottinger's letter continued.

"Our feeling is that at some point in time we needed to make sure we're making the public aware of how we feel things are going to go from a taxpayer standpoint," said Bill Lehner, superintendent for the Genoa City/Bloomfield School District.

Lehner said the service the county provided to the schools saved taxpayer dollars.

"Our feeling was we had a very good program for special ed children that provided for their needs," Lehner said. "It provided a lot for the amount of money put in. But at the same time now we're going in the opposite direction."

All but one of the county's school districts agreed to accept the transition plan, said Dave Bretl, county administrator. Whitewater, the remaining district, will examine the issue at its board meeting later this month.

Supervisor Dorothy Burwell, chairwoman of the county's Children with Disabilities Educational Board, said the most important thing for the county and the school districts was to maintain a separate school.

"We had exactly what the state wants us to do (as far as consolidation), but we undid ourselves of it," Burwell said. "I'm more concerned in giving parents choices and doing what's best for the children. I'm not going to get hung up on what we did."

Keeping the school was supported by each of the county's school district administrators.

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