On Monday, Lakeland STAR School/Academy was once again a dominating agenda item at the Arbor Vitae-Woodruff School Board meeting. Gregg Walker, Lakeland STAR board president and publisher of The Lakeland Times, appeared before the AV-W board as a spokesperson.
Lakeland STAR, a charter school in the Lakeland Area School District, caters to the needs of children on the autism spectrum.
“Autistic children learn differently. It’s a communicative disorder,” Walker said, emphasizing Lakeland STAR offers a better learning environment for these children.
Walker explained Lakeland STAR is modeled after the Lionsgate Academy, a school in Minnesota that provides education for a similar demographic. Lionsgate is a large success, but it has been helped by certain state legislation and funding that Wisconsin lacks.
Walker himself has been a large advocate for the issue at the state level.
“I can’t tell you the number of hours I spent in Madison,” he said.
Special education students require an Individualized Education Program (IEPs), which dictate the amount of funding that must go toward a student. For example, a student who requires a one-on-one paraprofessional will cost more than a student who does not.
“We aren’t doing anything different than what the taxpayers would pay for that student whether they go to AV-W or the charter school,” Walker said. “So if you have an IEP and that IEP dictates a cost of $50,000, that’s what it’s going to be.”
The majority of students at Lakeland STAR have IEPs, but a few general education (gen. ed.) students are also enrolled this year.
Most of the apprehension that arose for the AV-W school board at its past meeting was in regard to AV-W’s financial contribution. Currently, AV-W has two students attending the charter school and has already paid $50,000 to Lakeland STAR for this year’s general operating costs.
AV-W school board president Jack Jurries wanted to know where the money would come from in the future if the state government continued to refuse funding.
“Within our district here, is it going to be looked at as an overall referendum to help push this along?” he asked.
Up to this point, Lakeland STAR has been fully funded through donations. In two years, they have raised $1.7 million from 244 donors.
“I think the biggest hurdle we have is not money ... I think at the end of the day, it’s finding the people,” Walker said, explaining there is a shortage of therapists, specialists and paraprofessionals state-wide, and in the Northwoods especially. Even when the charter school does find someone qualified, he said, “it’s hard to retain people for various reasons.”
Due to the limited staff and building size, the school will be capped at 37 students. There are currently 35 enrolled.
“You very well possibly are going to start getting applicants way beyond what you can accept,” school board member Judith Nelson pointed out.
“We can’t deny anybody to go to the STAR Academy, whether they have an IEP or not,” Walker responded. He clarified that students, special needs or gen. ed., will only be accepted if there’s an opening. After all 37 spots have been filled, students will be placed on a waiting list before going to a lottery system.
Getting down to the numbers
“I think we can talk really globally about supporting the efforts and the need and when you concentrate services that it makes sense,” school administrator Jocelyn Smith said. “When it’s things that we can’t provide here, that is why you contract out or you service out. I think for the two students that we have going, they don’t fall into that category, so it’s tough.”
According to Smith, “one student never stepped foot in this building and never cost us anything — was a homeschool kid and doesn’t have an IEP.”
Smith said her primary concern was AV-W doesn’t have a voice at the table when it comes to determining students’ needs and the services they require, whether they have an IEP or not.
“We don’t have the cadillac services, the eight hours of speech and language, but that’s where it gets tricky,” Smith said, explaining that in some cases, AV-W could offer similar services, albeit lower quality, but for a lower cost. She said this becomes a concern especially for gen. ed. students.
“At the end of the day, if it’s a gen. ed. student, I don’t know why you would be paying any more than what a gen. ed. student would cost,” Walker said.
“That’s maybe where we’re unclear,” Nelson said. “So if a student applies and gets accepted and they don’t have a diagnosis and they don’t have an IEP and they’re just a gen. ed. student and they go to STAR Academy, are we, because they live in our district, going to get billed $50,000 for them or are we going to get billed $12,000?”
On average, it costs Wisconsin schools approximately $12,000 to educate a general education student. When it comes to special needs students, state funding kicks in once a student costs the district $30,000 or more. Past that point, the school receives partial reimbursement.
Walker said sometimes students will not have an IEP until they get to Lakeland STAR, due to an undiagnosed issue for example, which complicates Nelson’s question.
“What I’m trying to understand is, say AV-W has three kids coming and they are three different levels, at the end of the year, are we going to get billed $50,000 for each student or are we going to get billed the actual cost for educating that student?” Smith asked.
“Are you getting billed?” Walker asked.
Smith said AV-W had not been billed yet, but she expected to be.
“I mean we’re talking the difference between like $86,000 and $12,000 ... Nobody knows the cost of the child,” she said, using an $86,000 price tag as a hypothetical.
“Are you invited to the IEPs?” Walker asked Smith.
“No,” she said.
“Then you need to be,” Walker said. According to him, the other elementary schools have representation at those discussions.
“It’s scary to think that we’re not at the table, but yet we’re being billed for the services that are cadillac services,” Smith said, pointing out she would feel more comfortable if each student’s IEP was written out for the sake of financial tracking, as well as to ensure consistent care should that student return to AV-W. “When you’re adding on services that we can’t afford or that we’re not at the table to talk about, it does feel like that’s not being clear for us.”
Walker said he didn’t have enough information on AV-W’s current students, but offered to sit back down with Smith at a later time.
“When we’re asking questions about the pennies and the dollars, it’s not because we have questions about the program itself,” Nelson said. “It’s just we need the detail to know, do we put $50,000 in the budget or do we put $150,000?”
Smith said she felt there needed to be clarification about the entire enrollment process and each feeder school’s responsibilities, however, she acknowledged AV-W is dealing with two specific cases of students that may not apply to other schools.
The conversation circled back to the issue of sending a non-special ed. student.
“If it’s to better the student’s education because we can’t provide what you’re providing, that’s a no-brainer to me,” Smith said. “But to try to then say they have to go someplace else to get an education that I feel really confident that our staff does well, I’m just trying to figure out that balance.”
Walker said that due to state law, Lakeland STAR is unable to pick and choose which students can enroll; it’s up to parental choice. Once students secure spots, they do not need to reapply unless they chose to leave.
Lakeland STAR is only accepting Lakeland Area School District students. To open enrollment and accept out of district students would complicate the lack-of-state-funding issue even further. Walker said he has had many families from area districts approach him about enrolling their child, but he has had to decline them.
Regardless of what may be future issues, “when it comes to the IEPs, if AV-W students are coming, I think you should be at the table,” Walker said.
“I really didn’t know that (Smith) or your special ed. wasn’t in the mix,” he said. “I thought they were. To me, that’s simple.”