Co-ops, computers dominate Twin Bridges school board

TWIN BRIDGES – Two possibilities for joining cooperatives and computer services dominated the discussion at Twin Bridges school board’s November 20 meeting.


Special ed co-op

Sara Novak, the new leader of the Great Divide Education Services – a special education cooperative – came to the school board meeting to pitch the idea that Twin Bridges school district would rejoin this co-op.

Twin Bridges left the co-op in the 2016 – 2017 school year, because the board decided it wasn’t getting the service it was paying for.

Novak, emphasizing that the organization had changed under her leadership and was in a better position to serve the clientele, noted that several schools pulled out of the coop during the 2016 - 2017 school year. 

“We got dinged on this,” she said.

Novak explained that Great Divide Education Services (GDES) is one of 23 statewide co-ops, and that school districts have two choices with special education requirements: Larger schools can run their own programs; smaller districts, if their special ed needs are under $8,000, must join a co-op. Novak said TB is a larger school.

Within the co-op, school districts pool their resources in order to provide special education programs and those who service them. The obligation to serve special needs kids is sometimes outside the school district’s abilities, which is why co-ops make sense.

Novak said these programs – which are serviced by psychologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and special education teachers – are very costly, one reason why many districts go the co-op route. 

Fees charged to district are in proportion to their size, Novak said. Some block grant money goes to the schools to help with this, but this funding stays within the co-op.

Novak said filling these special education positions was hard. However, House Bill 27 revised funding for special ed and is helping fund co-ops. 

Novak said GDES had restructured their fees schedule, linking it to reenrollment numbers and the average special education population.

Under her leadership, GDES would offer “open communication.” Novak noted that she’d cut back on some staffing levels, but refocused efforts to cover the territory necessary within the co-op.

She wondered what the board’s expectations of re-joining the co-op were. 

“We’re moving forward with a fresh plate and new hires,” she said.

Board member Gary Konen said cutting staff in the coop was a red flag for him. He wondered what assurances the school could have that the services the coop would provide would be delivered.

Novak said that she could totally understand the board’s concerns about issues with the service provider, but noted that the coop was serving all of the necessary services with the current staff. 

“We have the same values and commitment as the board,” Novak said. “We anticipate adding staff next year, especially in psychology and speech.”

Board member Mike Hughes wondered about the student to instructor ratio.

Novak said her staff was spread out to cover each of the districts in the coop – GDES covers the area from Lima to Lincoln, east to Alder, also Anaconda, Drummond, Phillipsburg, Dillon and Deer Lodge – where a special ed provider would be visiting one school every couple of days.

Novak also pointed out that by being in the coop, Anaconda this past school year paid $209,000 for $240,000 worth of services thanks to the collective value of being a member, federal monies, and how the coop can carry a district. 

Superintendent Thad Kaiser said he’d contacted several other school districts and reviewed with their administrators the value of co-ops versus going the independent route. Three said they were “all on board” with a co-op, including GDES; two liked the independent route.

Kaiser also said that the co-op would be the best way to handle special needs students arriving in the district at mid-year.

Kaiser said the district spent $48,000 on special education last year, but paid $75,000 to the coop in 2017. Between grants and juggling other monies, this wasn’t actually $75,000, but more like $25,000, the amount of money that must be spent on special education. On average, the district was spending about $55,000 on special education annually, with special ed costs ranging from $55,000 to $65,000 annually.

Re-entering the coop would cost the district about $43,000 

After much discussion, the board decided to look at a draft contract at the December meeting.


Sheridan co-op?

The board also discussed a co-op with Sheridan school district, particularly for fall sports like football and cross-country teams.

Kaiser said he visited with Sheridan’s school board at their last meeting and noted that the board discussed this, but nothing was decided because this was not an official agenda item. He said there were some comments about this, but Superintendent Mike Wetherbee welcomed the opportunity to discuss the opportunity.

A straw vote Kaiser took resulted in 25 yes, 17 no for such a co-op, he said.

Board member Gary Konen also attended the meeting and noted “little opposition.”

Hughes said the public hadn’t received enough notice about this, and he said he wanted the “best possibilities for students.” 

School board student representative Blue Keim said she’d talked to a couple of people and they thought a co-op would work out better for football than for sports where there was not a need to compete against another team – such as cross country, where the competition is more against yourself in terms of time, than another team.

Board member Steve Janzen said there would be many savings to both schools if there could be one bus, on coach for both schools.

Residents at the meeting wondered what was the hold-up, what were the concerns about doing this. 

“There are more issues for them,” said one resident. 

Another resident said football teams would be reduced to 6-man instead of 8-man teams in the future if enrollment did not pick up. 

A third talked about how his two sons have a “total disadvantage” not playing junior varsity football. They used practice dummies most of this year because there were not enough players to field two teams to scrimmage. He also suggested everyone look at an article on, “We are the Titans,” about how Drummond and Phillipsburg put aside community rivalries to form a co-op and for the last five years have fielded good football teams.

“Sheridan needs another meeting before this this is mutual,” said school board president Allison Wentzel. 

Kaiser said that combining the two district’s efforts on many things would result in safer conditions for students, and could span more than just sports – resources, training, other items.

The board made no decision on furthering conjoining teams with Sheridan.


Computer system

Kaiser urged the board to consider working with Schoolhouse IT, a technology company he had worked with in other schools where he served as superintendent, to clean up the district’s computer system.

The district’s current system is unsupported because it was built by two individuals in 2012, and if they decide to walk away from it, the district is on its own.

Kaiser said Schoolhouse IT was “fabulous to work with,” and could alleviate problems.

Hughes wondered about the cost of this.

Kaiser said Schoolhouse IT charges a monthly fee. He said the school spent $49,000 in 2017 on its computer system, which is now quirky. Kaiser believed Schoolhouse could reduce the district’s costs, overall, by building a “robust computer system without problems.”

Janzen wondered about phones being part of this. Kaiser said they could be.

Board member Patty Nelson suggested the board review Schoolhouse’s proposal and make a decision at its December meeting.

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