TONTOGANY — Parents of special needs children are taking exception to how Otsego administrators treat those children, and have accused the superintendent of not caring about students.
|Otsego board members during the swearing in of Mark Tolles, Brad Anderson, and Judy Snyder. (Photo: Aaron Carpenter/Sentinel-Tribune)
Parents of three children attended Monday’s board of education meeting to call for better training of district personnel, including teachers and bus drivers, and better communication from the transportation director and superintendent.
Weston residents Russell and Shari Ewing reported that just before winter break, their 9-year-old autistic son came home from school naked from the waist down. There wasn’t an aide on the bus, which transports four special needs children to their unit in Northwood, and the driver wasn’t aware of the boy’s condition, Russell Ewing stated. In response, the transportation director put a four-point seat belt on the child — Ewing compared it to a straight jacket — reportedly without the permission of the parents. The couple is accusing the district of circumventing their son’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
An IEP is developed for every student with a disability, and outlines the educational program to be provided to a child.
Superintendent Jim Garber sat through two different calls for his resignation — from Ewing, for placing students at the bottom of the list of priorities, and from Grand Rapids resident Tim Miley, who remains upset with the efforts to consolidate elementary grades into one building in Tontogany.
If Garber put children first, he never would have closed Weston Elementary, Russell Ewing contended. Although his child attended Wood Lane School last year, Ewing maintained that with the closure of Weston, special needs children that had attended school locally now are on long bus rides to attend programs in Northwood, North Baltimore and Bowling Green.
The accusation was enough to rile the superintendent.
“I care very much about the children of this district,” Garber told Ewing with raised voice. “Don’t ever accuse me of not caring about the children.”
The superintendent has been with the district 2 1/2 years, and has 3 1/2 years remaining on his contract. He said after the meeting that calls for his resignation come with the job, but he considered it offensive to link it with an accusation that he doesn’t care about children. “If somebody says I don’t care about kids, they don’t know me.”
|Local residents listen in to the Otsego school board meeting, where three new board members were sworn in to office. (Photo: Aaron Carpenter/Sentinel-Tribune)
Jennifer Cowdrey, a Haskins parent with a special needs child, said it was frustrating to deal with the “ignorance” in the district regarding children with disabilities. Transportation employees “need some help in a big way. Their comments are very degrading and hurtful.”
Cindy Robinson, of Weston, added that her son also comes home without his clothes, or wearing someone else’s. And without an aide on the bus, he gets out of his seat belt and is capable of opening the rear bus door.
“We’ve got four little bodies that need to be safe,” she told the board.
However, parent Mary Gase, of Plain Township, said she never once has had problems with how the district works with her special needs child, and she commended Garber and administrators for the job they have been doing.
“God bless you for never having had a problem, but put yourself in our shoes,” responded Shari Ewing.
Miley used the time reserved for visitors’ comments to accuse the board of breaking its promise to keep elementaries in their communities, and asked new board members Brad Anderson, Judy Snyder and Mark Tolles for a vote to abandon the consolidation plan and ask for Garber’s resignation.
Board member James Harter reminded Miley that the previous board moved forward with consolidation plans because of the financial situation facing the district. To reconsider now would result in huge penalties, he said.
He also took exception to the criticism against Garber —“He has always had kids first and foremost at heart” — and against the previous board. “I’m damn proud of a lot of stuff this former board did to move the district forward.”
During Garber’s update on the elementary construction project, he said the plan to complete the project before starting renovations to the junior high could change. Snyder had suggested doing the projects simultaneously to take advantage of the current bidding environment. The change, however, would require grades 6-8 be moved out of the junior high and to Weston Elementary during renovations.
Also at the meeting, Garber alerted board members that the issue of all-day every day kindergarten would be on their Feb. 25 meeting agenda. House Bill 1 mandates that all public school districts offer all-day every day kindergarten starting in the 2010-11 school year — unless the district asks for, and receives, a waiver. Garber said the district would need to hire the equivalent of 2 1/2 teachers to offer the all-day program; the state does not provide funding for the mandate, leaving the district to cut funding elsewhere to make up the cost of the necessary new teachers.
Also during the meeting, and the preceding organizational meeting, the board:
• Established the fourth Thursday of the month for its regular meetings, at 7 p.m.
• Elected Tolles as board president, and Snyder as vice president. A motion for Harter to return for another term as president died for lack of a second.
• Set a worksession for Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. to discuss the fiscal year 2011 budget.
• Went into executive session to discuss negotiations. No action was planned.