Montcalm County school officials hope time is right for special ed millage

Posted by Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 2:35 pm on Wednesday, March 19 2014

Seiter Education Service Center aid Dominic Livasy left, works with special education student Luke Hucklebury by using an electronic tablet device Thursday afternoon at the Greenville school. The facility is just one part of the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District (MAISD)’s countywide special ed services. — Daily News/Cory Smith


Twenty-six years.

That’s how much time has gone by since Montcalm County voters last approved an increase in special education funding.

In the meantime, Montcalm Area Intermediate School District (MAISD) officials have made more than $2.5 million in cuts to special education services and reduced their workforce by 22 percent. Programs not required by law have been consolidated or eliminated, including the shutdown of Harold O. Steele Alternative High School in Fenwick in 2006.

But special ed expenses continue to increase.

MAISD officials this month began a campaign to raise awareness about a special ed millage request set to go to a countywide vote May 6. The request will ask voters whether to restore the MAISD’s special ed millage — currently 2.1878 mills — to 2.50, as well as add another mill for a total of 3.50 mills.

Seiter Education Service Center special education student Tygon Ashburn partakes in a visual stimulation exercise Thursday afternoon. — Daily News/Cory Smith

If approved, the millage would generate about $2.6 million, which would allow the MAISD to continue to offer free special ed services to the more than 1,700 special ed students in Montcalm County’s seven school districts. A total of $800,000 of that $2.6 million would go directly to the seven school districts, including Carson City-Crystal, Central Montcalm, Greenville, Lakeview, Montabella, Tri County and Vestaburg schools.

The rest of the funds would be used to support MAISD special ed services, including the William J. Seiter Education Service Center in Greenville, a special ed school that provides programs, services and eventual job placements to disabled people from infancy through age 26. Some of the funds would also go toward the MAISD’s special ed transportation service, a costly expense as MAISD buses regularly make trips throughout the entire county on a daily basis.

If the millage fails, the MAISD will not be able to sustain offering free special ed services to local schools and will have to start billing the school districts. Also, local schools will be forced to make cuts to their own general ed programs, since special ed programs and services are mandated by state and federal law and therefore cannot be eliminated.

MAISD Superintendent Scott Koenigsknecht realizes it’s a sensitive subject for parents of general ed and special ed students alike. The millage proposal is not a knee-jerk one … MAISD officials have been searching for solutions and considering a millage request since 2011.

“We feel the time is right,” Koenigsknecht said. “If this is successful, all children are going to benefit.”

Seiter Education Service Center special education student Jacob Johnson spends time coloring Thursday afternoon. — Daily News/Cory Smith

Voters originally approved a 0.50 special ed millage request from the MAISD in 1959. An additional millage was approved in 1971, increasing the millage to 0.75. Another millage was approved in 1988, increasing the millage to 1.25 for a total of 2.50 mills authorized over the years. A portion of that millage was later decreased due to the Headlee Amendment rollback.

The MAISD most recently put a special ed millage increase request on the ballot in 2002. It failed by 2,006 “no” votes to 1,657 “yes” votes.

Since then, Montcalm County has become the lowest debt-levying ISD in the region, coming in last for special ed funding per pupil after Ionia, Gratiot-Isabella, Kent, Mecosta-Osceola, Newaygo and Clinton counties. If the upcoming millage proposal is approved by voters, Montcalm County would move up from the bottom of the list to the middle.

Kathleen Flynn, associate superintendent of special education for the MAISD, said she and her colleagues work with special ed students of all ages with the goal of making them as independent as possible, thus increasing their chances for finding employment and a decent quality of life when the students “age out” of the MAISD’s program at age 26.

“We are very invested in getting our students out of their wheelchairs,” Flynn said.

If approved, the May 6 millage request would cost a homeowner with a $50,000 home, which has a taxable value of $25,000, a total of $32.81 per year; a homeowner with a $100,000 home, which has a taxable value of $50,000, a total of $65.61 per year; or a homeowner who owns a $200,000 home, which has a taxable value of $100,000, a total of $131.22 per year.

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