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Special-needs program to change

Snowberger

By Chase Olivarius-Mcallister Herald staff writer

Durango School District 9-R is making big changes to its special-needs program after a detailed review of its effectiveness and its funding – changes that will affect students in and out of the district.

From now on, District 9-R will charge other districts $15,000 for every special-needs student they enroll in Durango’s program.

Also, in an effort to close achievement gaps between students with and without special needs – an area in which state-mandated tests show Durango to be lagging – the district is altering the structure of its special-needs education from “center based” to a format the district thinks will better identify and respond to students’ individual needs.

Additionally, the district is planning to implement an off-campus option for eligible special-needs students between 18 and 21 years old.

Durango School District, the biggest in the region, has long run its own program for special-needs students. Until now, it’s also served special-needs students from smaller neighboring districts, including Bayfield and Ignacio, which – by virtue of being smaller – have found it difficult to afford their own programs.

Dan Snowberger, superintendent of Durango schools, said that while other districts have traditionally paid the transport costs associated with busing special-needs students from their districts to Durango, they’ve pocketed the all-important “PPF” – per pupil funding, the money allotted by the state for every student’s education. Snowberger said this financial dynamic means that Durango has effectively been subsidizing special-needs education throughout the region at the expense of all Durango school district students, a position the district can no longer sustain as it tackles deficit spending.

District spokeswoman Julie Popp said last year 29 students were enrolled in Durango’s special-needs program.

Right now, Colorado’s per pupil funding comes to about $6,500.

Snowberger said the district decided to charge other districts $15,000 per special-needs student after the San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES, conducted an analysis of the costs of Durango’s program.

Educators in Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio are anticipating that the combined effect of these changes will be the shrinking of Durango’s special-education program.

Durango 9-R Chief Financial Officer Laine Gibson said the district wouldn’t have any hard numbers about staff or student enrollment until September.

In light of their new bottom lines, both the Bayfield and Ignacio school boards are considering starting their own special-needs programs.

At recent board meetings, both Bayfield Superintendent Troy Zabel and Ignacio Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto indicated that sending special-needs students to Durango might no longer be financially prudent, though it remains unclear whether their districts intend to start comprehensive special-needs programs or programs that serve a specific age group.

Snowberger said the major change taking place in special-needs education in Durango “isn’t a financial issue: It’s a programming issue.”

Snowberger said that five years ago, the state designated Durango’s special-needs program ineffective, a finding confirmed in his own visits to special-needs classrooms.

He said going forward, the district’s special-needs program would be more precisely calibrated to the needs of every individual student, who often require vastly different levels of help with “math skills, English, reading, toilet skills or making beds.”

“We don’t need two teachers there to do that. We have staff who teach math, science and reading – who have the expertise. We’re going to really reach out and use the staff that’s here,” he said.

Snowberger emphasized that the district’s goal is to equip special-needs students with “the same job skills. These are students who are going to work in our community. Some of those students are college-bound. Just because you have an IQ of 80 doesn’t mean you can’t learn a trade and be an electrician,” he said.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

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