Northeast Metro District 916 explores plans for special education regional buildings


Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916 is exploring plans to build a Northwest Regional K-8 special education facility. The plans are in answer to a growing demand for the district’s services.


The move would ultimately consolidate several special education sites spread throughout the district into a single site.


District 916, which partners with school districts to meet the unique needs of students and staff, is experiencing an increase in referrals from its member districts requesting services for students with complex special education needs.


Many of the students who enroll in the program display highly aggressive behaviors, can injure themselves or others and experience significant mental health needs.


Statewide cuts to health and human services are a factor in the upward trend of an increase in referrals. Youth who used to receive a higher level of service from the county are now being served by public schools.


“We are serving students whose decline in mental health support are contributing to an unsafe learning environment and an unsafe working environment,” said Connie Hayes, District 916 superintendent.


A team of administrators from District 916, headed by Hayes, presented a steering committee’s recommendations to Spring Lake Park District 16 School Board members at a March 27 work session at the District Services Center.


District 16 is one of 10-member school districts in the intermediate school district. Other member districts are: Centennial, Columbia Heights, Mahtomedi, Mounds View, North St. Paul/Maplewood/Oakdale, Roseville, South Washington County, Stillwater and White Bear Lake.


District 916 now serves about 390 special education students, according to Hayes.


A facilities study plan first began in 2006.


Recommendations for building a Northwest Regional K-8 facility are an outgrowth of conversations with member district school superintendents, business managers and special education directors.


Challenging needs


In the meetings, the directors noted local districts are serving as many students as they can “but there will always be a need for some out placement for some of the students who have the most challenging needs, and many of them have these mental health challenges and very aggressive behavior,” Hayes said.


District 916 satisfies the out placement needs.


In part one of a three-step plan to build regional K-8 special education schools, a new Northwest Regional K-8 facility would be constructed. On completion, Oneka and Otter Lake elementary schools in White Bear Lake, special education sites in District 916, would close and they would consolidate into the new northwest facility.


Consolidation is projected to save on expenditures for administrative and staffing costs, bring staff together, rather than functioning in separate buildings and create a safer environment for students and staff.


Hayes said the district’s special education staff face potential injuries on a daily basis.


The injury rate for District 916 workers is 76 percent greater than the industry standard, according to the district (percentage is based on workers compensation insurance experience modification factor, in District 916’s case a factor of 1.76, used to determine the amount of premiums paid in a policy year).


Design benefits for a consolidated building, per best practices, would separate students needing autism services from those with emotional behavior disorders. Younger students would be taught in separate areas from older students and individual calming spaces would be provided for children in crisis.


“The students can go into crisis very, very quickly,” Hayes said.


Additionally, the design would minimize crisis impact on other students.


Why build in northwest first?


Costs for a new Northwest Regional K-8 facility – a 70,000 square-foot building and land – are estimated at about $15 million.


An exact site for the regional school is yet to be determined.


The northwestern part of the district is the location of choice to build the first proposed regional school because the students receiving District 916 services are temporarily housed in spaces in the northwest region, which will not be available in 2014.


Member districts are now realizing a need for use of those special education sites (now leased to District 916) because of a projected increase in enrollment in their mainstream classes.


A second reason is that the northwest region students now have access to fewer Northeast Metro District 916 program sites than those in the southeast region, according to a District 916 report.


The district is currently either leasing special education sites in schools in the 10-member district or it owns wings in public school buildings. District 916 also owns Capitol View Center, a high school facility in Little Canada.


By locating a regional facility in the northwest area of the district, about 85 students would move from other facilities allowing for more openings for students living in the southeast part of the district.


The intermediate district serves students from about 50 area school districts. About 80 percent of the students are member district students, while about 20 percent are from non-member school districts.


The savings


Consolidating separate buildings into a central space would increase efficiency in administration and specialized staff.


The move would help member districts save dollars in their special education cross subsidy, which, in turn, saves money in the general fund, according to Hayes.


Consolidation would reduce total staff by 9.7 FTE (full-time equivalent) at an annual estimated savings of $527,020, according to a District 916 report titled “Regional K-8 Special Education Schools: Why Now?”


One full-time administrator would be cut at an estimated savings of $111,220, while education assistant staffing would be reduced by four, for an annual savings of $126,000.


Total projected annual savings for consolidation benefits are estimated at $646,420, with a projected annual cost increase of $326,307 for anticipated building operation costs.


Total net savings for consolidation is estimated at $320,113, according to the report.


FTE reductions would be achieved by attrition and by reassigning staff to itinerant/purchased services with member districts, the report states.


Consolidation would also increase efficiency in transportation costs for referring districts and minimize bus time for younger students.


Among other benefits, it would provide well-designed sites for specific age groups. Sites now are located in traditional schools with a design that creates challenges to meeting the needs of special education students. Some have long hallways, for instance, where students in crisis can take off running toward an exit, causing a potentially dangerous situation.


‘A real need’


“There’s a real need,” Jeff Ronneberg, superintendent of District 16, said at the Spring Lake Park work session. “Just seeing these kids literally brought tears to my eyes. We have a few kids this year and the challenge is finding a place for them.”


District 16 Boardmember Marilynn Forsberg serves as the vice chairwoman on the District 916 board of directors.


“A new special education facility in the northwest part of the 916 district would be great since some of our kids have pretty long bus rides to school now and go to school in buildings which weren’t designed for special education students,” Forsberg said in an e-mail to the Blaine/Spring Lake Park Life.


“Consolidating administration and staff would cut costs, too. We’re seeing more students at younger ages who need specialized services, so a new facility would have space to accommodate more students from Spring Lake Park and the surrounding area.


“A new school would be a winning situation for students, staff and families.”


Recommendations for a new Northwest Regional K-8 building call for a $1.2 million annual lease levy over 15 years.


Spring Lake Park’s lease levy for the building is projected at $107,318 per year.


Proposed annual costs (bond included) for a new Northwest K-8 building to Spring Lake Park taxpayers with a home valued at $150,000 would be $2.96 a year or 25 cents a month.


Without bonding, costs would be $4.43 a year or 37 cents a month.


District 16 Boardmember John Stroebel asked the visiting team at the work session if local taxpayers had any say on how the recommendation would impact their property taxes.


Taxpayers would not vote on the proposal.


Rather, the 916 school board would. The board comprises one school board member representing each member district and it has the authority to approve spending for the lease levy, according to Hayes.


An increase in referrals


During the last few years, District 916 has experienced an increase in referrals for its special education services for elementary students.


The number has risen from 34 in 2006-07 to 98 in 2010-11 (latest figures available). In grades six through eight, 107 students attended District 916 in 2006-07. That number has increased to 134 in 2010-11.


Enrollment at the high school level, however, has dropped from 437 in 2006 to 414 in 2010-11.


District 916 has also seen an increase in physically aggressive behavior among students. Some of the high-need special education students at times resort to biting, pinching and hitting.


“Some of the stories that go with those students would curl your toes because they have huge needs… ,” Forsberg said (at the District 16 work session) about some of the students in the program.


Specially trained staff use Kevlar sleeves, gloves and safety helmets to protect themselves from some of the students who kick and shove. But staff members have not emerged unscathed from injuries.


Staff injuries doubled from 47 in 2010 to 93 in 2011 at two of District 916’s largest special education programs.


“The reported injuries were directly related to interactions with students and most often the result of biting, hitting, pinching, kicking, shoving and grabbing,” according to a winter 2012 report titled “Changing Directions in Mental Health Support for Minnesota’s Children.”


“This in spite of the use of behavior intervention programs in schools and the implementation of greater training for staff… .”


The report was prepared in partnership by District 916 and Intermediate School District 917 and Christine Wroblewski, communications consultant for District 916.


A video highlighting needs


During the March work session, the District 916 visiting team also showed a 10-minute video highlighting the need for regional facilities.


The video was shot at John Glenn Middle School where District 916 now services elementary special education students.


“Kids this ill used to be in hospitals or they were in residential treatment centers,” psychologist Linda Walinski said in the video.


Said special education teacher Tim Ryan about the students, “They want to play with other kids. They want to be in games with them. They want to learn. They want to develop friendships. They want to say ‘sorry’ when somebody gets hurt. They just don’t know how to do it.”


Consortium can do more for students


Nineteen Spring Lake Park students are now receiving special education services from District 916, according to Denise Waalen, director of education services at District 16.


District 16 pays a membership fee of $97,000 to District 916 for the 2011-12 school year, said Amy Schultz, District 16 business manager.


The SLP district reserves “slots” for available space when it needs to send students to District 916.


“If the district were to keep all students in our schools, the staffing and site work that would need to be done on a year-to-year basis would be much more expensive,” Schultz said in an e-mail to the Life, echoing Hayes’ message at the March work session.


“The needs change quickly and facilities need to be adjusted in order to fit those needs. As a consortium they can do this more easily than each individual district.”


Non-member districts also benefit from District 916 services. They pay 22 percent more for services than district members, Hayes said.


Non-member district access fees generate from $500,000 to $600,000 annually.


The District 916 team is in the process of presenting the facilities proposal to all of its member districts. The school board on June 5 will vote on whether to move forward with step 1, according to Hayes.


Hopefully, the newly consolidated facility would open in 2014-15 school year, Hayes said.


In step 2, a Southeast Regional K-8 facility would be built. Step 3 involves addressing deferred maintenance, redesign or replacement of Capitol View Center.




Should the new buildings and improvements not move forward:


• Enrollment could close to non-member districts. This would result in lost revenue generated from fees that fund deferred maintenance and infrastructure costs in District 916.


• Member districts would not have access to District 916 programs they are accustomed to having.


• Elementary and secondary students would be served together.


• District 916 would have to lease more space, continue to create small programs with resultant addition of staffing and short-term costly renovations. Staffing allocation would involve teachers and medical service staff spending a large portion of their day driving from one location to another rather than spending time serving students at one site.


• Administrative costs to support more and smaller programs would increase.


‘They can make progress’ 


A timeline for the three-step building/maintenance/redesign plan has yet to be determined.


“When they get the medical therapeutic help that they need, they do start to get better,” Hayes said about the District 916 students receiving special education services.


“So, they’re not throwaway kids. They can make progress. It’s just that we can’t provide that element of their service … We do have some very, very nice success stories.”


Hayes told the Life her hopes are to create facilities that will reduce the number of students who go into crisis.


“A second piece, just as important, is to work with decision makers and legislators to find resources and better strategies to help these students with mental health challenges,” she said.


Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]