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Friday, May 2, 2008

The last hurdle for Lakeland school?

By Dan Plutchak/The Week

For nearly six years, students in the class of 2009 at Lakeland School weren't sure where they'd get their high school diploma.

But following an appeals court ruling a week ago, they can make plans to be the first class to graduate from the new Lakeland School of Walworth County.

In a court case that sought to put an end to teaching students with developmental disabilities at Lakeland School, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a ruling against Disability Rights of Wisconsin. The group claimed that a new school would promote further segregation of students.

The ruling upholds a federal judge's decision last year to dismiss Disability Rights Wisconsin's lawsuit because the group had not proven it would be injured by the building of a new school.

"We're excited," said Tracy Moate, director of special education at Lakeland School. "It's another thing we can put behind us."

And the list of things to put behind them is a long one.

Lakeland School has been fighting for its future since 2002, when a consultant's report said the current building was no longer adequate for the needs of the students.

That launched a nearly two-year debate among county board members about whether or not Walworth County should be in the business of educating students with disabilities in the first place. Without Lakeland School, students would still receive services in their own school districts, but the money saved by the county would be offset by increased costs in the districts.

In September of 2004, the board voted to renew their commitment to Lakeland School and later decided to build a new school building at the Walworth County complex campus east of Elkhorn on Highway NN.

As plans were being finalized for new school, Disability Rights Wisconsin filed its lawsuit. Then in March of last year, a federal judge determined that no child is injured because no student is ever forced to go to Lakeland School. Disability Rights Wisconsin appealed, but was never able to enlist a parent as a plaintiff.

Despite the appeal, the county board decided to proceed with construction, which began a year ago in April.

But the questions over Lakeland School's future were far from over. Un-mandated programs, like Lakeland School, were central to election for the new, smaller county board.

The latest court ruling settles the remaining uncertainty facing Lakeland School.

"We no longer have these side issues," Moat said. "We want to focus on the opportunities for kids."

With the lawsuit settled, a new county board in place and the new building nearly complete, Moate says they can look toward the future-a future that will begin as soon as the current school year ends.

Moate says they hope to hold summer school classes in the new building and a grand opening celebration is planned for September.

Moate says it's been tiring the last few years, but now the focus can return to the primary mission of the school.

"It makes our dream more of a reality."

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