GRPS head recommends transferring special ed programs

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A special education program under fire in Grand Rapids earlier this year may soon be under new management.

Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal is recommending the district board transfer its center-based special education programs to the Kent Intermediate School District on July 1, 2019.    

“I firmly believe that this is in the best interest of our center-based students as it will ensure greater access, inclusion, and a more direct, vested interest from all twenty districts in center-based special education programming,” the superintendent stated in a letter to students, parents and staff.

Right now, Grand Rapids Public Schools runs center-based special education programs for all of Kent County; that’s more than 4,000 students from 19 school districts. 

Neal said GRPS is unique in that it holds such a contract. Weatherall Neal said ISDs or regional education service agencies run special education programs for the majority of other Michigan public schools.

Neal said the decision to shift to a regionally run program is a “natural progression” of work that started in 2012 with the district’s transformation plan.

Her recommendation comes after a group of parents and representatives of the teachers’ union demanded the district remove Executive Director of Special Education Laura LaMore because of program changes they said were moving children and leaving them underserved.

At that time,Neal and Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff stood behind the director and the program changes.

Then in May, Kent ISD called for an independent review of the programs that began in spring and was slated to wrap up in December.

But Monday, Neal issued a letter calling on the Grand Rapids Board of Education to transfer operation of center-based special education programs to Kent ISD next year.

“It’s the right thing to do at the right time. It has absolutely nothing to do,” Neal told 24 Hour News 8 Tuesday. “People complain every day especially about the work that I do.”

One of those unhappy with changes is Lilly Sculting. She’s the mother of a special needs student who started a movement and is now running for the Michigan Board of Education.

“The timing is surprising,”Schulting said.

She believes GRPS was convinced to make the change when the other districts called for a review and report.

“That report has nothing to do with what my decision is to move,” Neal countered.

Neal said the discussions about this change have been going on for a long time and will allow the other districts to have a greater stake in how the programs are run and will allow GRPS to be a partner, not a manager. 

“Parents will not feel this shift; the buildings will remain,” Neal said.

Neal said she believes Kent ISD will hire the current staff when the change happens, but they may not be obligated to do so. 

“Special ed programs, center-based programs will be a priority instead of one of many programs, and maybe GRPS has other focuses,” said Schulting. “I think it is very good news.”

Caniff said he is ready to accept whatever the GRPS board decide at its next meeting scheduled at the end of the month.

The decision comes after a recent U.S. Department of Education report gave Michigan’s special education program the lowest ranking in the nation.

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