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by Jessica Brophy
Head Start, which has been housed in its own building in Stonington for many decades, may be moving to the elementary school this year.
Brit Urh-Morse of Child and Family Opportunities described the need for the move to the Community School District board at the board’s monthly meeting on Tuesday, August 7, at the high school.
“On July 1, we were notified of a $243,000 cut from the state to our budget,” said Urh-Morse. “So we’ve explored getting out of buildings and doing everything we can to spend dollars on student services.”
Urh-Morse said CFO is trying to move the Stonington and Harrington programs out of their current buildings to cut down costs. CFO has already closed some classrooms in Bucksport and Ellsworth, said Urh-Morse.
In a follow-up interview, CFO Executive Director Doug Orville said the goal is to sign a long-term lease with the school and get out of the Stonington building entirely.
“There’s a lot of deferred maintenance on the building,” said Orville, who said CFO would “likely” sell the building. Orville said the space at the elementary school is “roughly the same” as it is in the Stonington building.
“We’d partner to reduce costs related to real estate,” said Orville.
Elementary school principal Mike Benjamin said the program would not change, and is for Head Start students. “It’s not meant to take away from the private day cares on the Island,” he said. Aside from food support at lunch and breakfast, and space for the program, Head Start will remain self-contained. Several classrooms would need to be rearranged and shifted to make room for the Head Start program, which Benjamin does not foresee as a problem.
Conversation is ongoing between the elementary school and CFO, said Benjamin in a follow-up interview. Any move from Stonington into the elementary school would likely take place over Thanksgiving break, said Benjamin.
The school board approved the student handbooks for both schools, but at the high school level approved the handbook on the condition that the “privilege ladder” developed by the high school’s student council over the past few years be removed.
The “privilege ladder” was shared with the school board on May 1. The ladder rewards good behaviors such as good grades, low absences, and being on track with graduation requirements. Rewards are based on grade level and type of good behavior, and can include a movie day, the ability to leave early or come in late, and the most controversial privilege—open campus during study hall and lunch with the ability to walk across the street to The Galley.
Board member Skip Greenlaw called the privilege ladder “wrong” and said he would not vote to approve the student handbook with the privilege ladder included.
“I think [the ladder] congratulates students for what they should be doing,” he said. “I think it sends the absolute wrong message.” Greenlaw also said the board was presented with the plan and did not have input in the plan.
Board member Vicki Zelnick, who was not present at the May meeting, said she was concerned about the issue of safety with an open campus. “It’s easy to blow it off until someone gets hit,” she said. “I have a real problem with them crossing the street.”
Board member Stephen York asked if there was a process to discuss the ladder with student council. “I think there was a lot of effort on this from the student council, and I don’t want to discourage that,” he said. “But it felt like we were told about this.”
The board voted unanimously (4-0, Nelson absent) to approve the high school handbook without the privilege ladder, which will be discussed in September.
In other business, the board discussed the board vacancy left by Ginnie Olsen in early June. By law, a vacancy is filled by the town selectmen based on the residency of the vacated member; in this case, by the Stonington selectmen. York requested superintendent Mark Jenkins call to find out whether the selectmen, who meet weekly, were near to picking a candidate to serve until town meeting in March.
“It’s difficult to get a quorum,” said York. “The fact is there’s a vacancy only they have the power to fill.”
High school principal Todd West sought unofficial approval to keep moving forward on a “Marine Pathway” proposal. The proposal would establish cross-discipline coursework focused on marine studies, including commercial fisheries. West has worked with several community stakeholders to develop a plan, which is still in process.
York said he was really excited about the proposal. “I want to see this go forward,” he said. “It really addresses the issue of how to encourage joyous learning.”
West will continue working on the Marine Pathway project.
Special Services Director Josh Nichols gave a report on the state of special education in CSD 13. Twenty-four percent of students in the school system are classified as special education students; this is twice the 12 percent state average.
In a follow-up interview, Nichols said the state requires a special report explaining a rate any higher than 12 percent. “We’d like to get our rate closer to the state average,” he said.
In the elementary school, students are more often pulled out of the regular education classroom than in the high school, where the majority of students spend more than 80 percent of time in the regular education classroom, said Nichols.
Nichols also reported to the board that a system to bill MaineCare for reimbursements for eligible special education services such as hearing screenings or speech therapy is in the works. A similar system had been in place but lapsed about two years ago under former Special Education Director Warren Berkowitz.
Greenlaw expressed dismay that such a billing system had lapsed. “I thought we were doing this all along,” said Greenlaw.
Nichols said he did not know why the billing of MaineCare for eligible services had stopped, but that the office could back-bill for a calendar year once the system was in place, allowing to recoup nearly all eligible services from last school year. In a follow up interview, Nichols also said his office is reviewing and identifying who is eligible for MaineCare services.
In a recent phone interview, Berkowitz said the union billed MaineCare for many years, but a change in MaineCare wording and billing procedures led him, and many special education directors across the state, to stop billing about two years ago.
A “medical model” was instituted, said Berkowitz, where the union would need to bill MaineCare “like we were a hospital, and prove that the procedures were a medical necessity,” said Berkowitz.
Berkowitz said he and his staff felt their purpose was educational, not medical, and he didn’t feel it was ethical to ask staff to bill as if they were performing medical procedures. Berkowitz said that at the time, questions had also been raised about whether the state would continue to reimburse claims.
The board meets next on Tuesday, September 4, at 5:30 p.m. at the high school.