Three Lake County school districts are withdrawing from a regional agency that provides special-education services, citing financial concerns and a desire to educate students locally.
Officials with Stevenson High School District 125, Kildeer Countryside District 96 and Lincolnshire-Prairie View District 103 have announced plans to leave the Special Education District of Lake County next summer.
If the efforts are successful, more of the districts' special-education students will attend classes at their home schools rather than at the special education district's specialized, off-site locations.
"We want to provide the best education possible for special-education students in the least-restrictive environment," Stevenson spokesman Jim Conrey said.
The moves require consent from the Lake County regional school board and the state board of education.
Districts have withdrawn from special education district before, but never three at one time. These three districts generate roughly $2.2 million in revenue for the agency, which has a $63 million annual budget, SEDOL Superintendent Tom Moline said.
That funding will have to be made up by the agency's other members, Moline said.
"SEDOL would not be capable of reducing operations in just one school year to absorb the potential loss," Moline said. "I anticipate it could take three to five years to do so, and only if state reimbursements and current economic conditions are maintained."
Moline estimated the tuition rates for the remaining districts would increase by more than 6.5 percent if the three districts step away in 2014. Each of the members' portions of operations and maintenance fees and retirement contributions would increase, too, Moline said.
Founded in 1960, the special education district serves about 1,300 students from 35 districts. It has six schools:
• Cyd Lash Academy, a high school program in Gages Lake.
• Gages Lake School, which serves elementary school students.
• The John Powers Center, a Vernon Hills facility that serves students who are deaf or have other hearing disabilities.
• Laremont School in Gages Lake, which serves people ages 3 to 22 who have profound learning disabilities.
• Sally Potter School in Lake Forest, which serves first- through eighth-graders with significant emotional or behavioral issues.
• The Mundelein Transition Center, which serves 18- to 22-year-olds who still need special-education support.
Twenty-one of Stevenson's 3,786 students receive special education district services. That total includes eight students in a transition program who legally are eligible for school services until they turn 22, Conrey said.
Including tuition and transportation, participating in the special education district costs Stevenson about $3.4 million annually, Conrey said.
Only two of the Kildeer Countryside District's 3,107 students are in special education district programs, Superintendent Julie Schmidt said. The district's cost is about $1 million annually, she said.
No District 103 students participate in special education district programs this year, Superintendent Scott Warren said, but the district does rely on the agency for occasional early childhood testing or other services. Despite the relative lack of use, special education district membership costs District 103 about $300,000 a year, Warren said.
Officials with the three districts cited many of the same reasons for wanting to leave the special education district.
For starters, offering more local special-education programs helps special-needs kids socialize with their peers in their home schools.
Keeping the kids local also gives their parents more opportunities to network with each other, said Stevenson's special education director, Jay Miller.
"If there's any way you can serve students on site, you do it," Miller said.
Leaving the special education district would give the districts more control over curriculum and programming, they said. The local schools already have expanded their special-education offerings in recent years.
This summer, a portion of Stevenson's east building was renovated to improve special-education facilities. Changes included creation of classrooms especially designed for kids with autism, expanded nursing facilities for students with physical challenges, and the construction of a lab to help young adults develop daily living skills, such as cooking and cleaning.
District 96 has added eight classrooms in recent years to serve students who previously had been sent to out-of-district schools for special-education programs.
"We have gone from having 26 students placed in SEDOL programs in 2010 to having two placed there now," Schmidt said. "We believe kids should be in neighborhood schools whenever possible."
Officials with the local districts also want a greater say in the evaluation and training of special-education teachers.
"We want our special-needs students to be taught by teachers who are getting the same quality of professional development and support, as well as oversight, that the entire (Stevenson) faculty receives," Conrey said.
Money is a factor, too.
Withdrawing from the agency "gives us more flexibility with our finances," District 103's Warren said.
Stevenson could save more than $1 million annually by withdrawing from the special education district.
Most of that savings will come from eliminating transportation-related costs. Public school districts legally must pay to transport participating special-education students to and from therapeutic day schools or other educational facilities. Typically that's done by a private taxi service.
"The money we would pay to SEDOL can be better spent in our own building on our own teaching staff, which is focusing on our students," Conrey said.
Two other districts have left the special education district cooperative since it was founded.
Lake Zurich Unit District 95 officials split from the consortium in 2010, and Barrington Unit District 220 withdrew in 1999.
Losing three districts at once hurts the agency financially, Moline said. But it stings in other ways, too.
For example, Stevenson staffers have taken active roles in special education district programs and committees, Moline said.
"You can't put a price on that," he said.
Moline hopes representatives from the three districts will work with special education district to develop a transition plan that will allow them to withdraw their students over several years rather than simultaneously next summer.
That will ease the financial burden on the special education district other members, many of which aren't wealthy enough to take on special-education responsibilities.
After all, that's why they joined the special education district, which receives about 42 percent of its funding from state and federal sources, to begin with.
"They can do it because they can afford to do it," Moline said of the three seceding districts. "There are not too many districts in Lake County who are in that position."
District 96's Schmidt is open to a gradual withdrawal. But until the district fully separates from the special education district, she said, it won't be able to collect federal funding for students with disabilities that now goes to the agency.
Stevenson officials have offered to delay leaving the special education district until 2015 to ease the transition.
"We're willing to work with them," Conrey said.