Schools special education program receives high marks

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The Whitefish School District received exceptional praise for its special education programs after a recent review by the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

During the review, which happens approximately every five years, OPI reviewed 53 of the district’s special education files and looked at 190 areas of compliance on each file. The district had a compliance rate that exceeds 99.8 percent proficiency.

During the April 11 School Board meeting, Special Service Director Dave Means shared the results of the review.

Means said it’s exciting to see the program’s hard work recognized, especially in areas like meeting participation and individualized planning for each student.

“That really means a lot to the folks that put a lot of time into it,” he said. “They’re really specifically focused on the needs of each child.”

Direct quotes from the OPI auditors were in the board packet, and included comments like “Some of the best paperwork we have seen,” “Great participation in meetings from parents and all staff,” and “Whitefish is one of the best SPED programs in the state.”

Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt thanked the special education staff at the meeting.

“I just want to take an opportunity to say thank to all of you that are here in our special education department, and to recognize the incredible work you do,” she said.

“I have heard, from multiple unrelated sources, that we have the best special education program in the state of Montana, and I absolutely believe that’s true.”

In a related item, Means also highlighted the costs of maintaining a stellar program by sharing information on a special education grant.

The board unanimously approved the grant application.

The school district applied for $20,000 of funding through an OPI grant for significant needs students. In Whitefish schools there are four students who receive a high level of individual special education service to meet their emotional and behavioral needs, with the average annual cost for each student hovering around $53,000, according to the district.

This is a grant the district applies for every year, Means said, and the amount awarded to Whitefish is generally between $5,000 and $10,000.

Davis Schmidt said seeing the cost breakdowns for the program helps to underline the importance of continuing a high level of education for special needs students.

“I think it was important in terms of understanding the costs related to our significant needs students. It’s not that our special education percentage numbers overall are going up, but the needs of the students within the special education programs are becoming more significant,” she said. “I think this is important for us to understand in terms of the implications of the district’s budget.”

Trustee Ruth Harrison said she was pleased to see creative ways to help fund the program.

“This is a big example of the unfunded mandate, that we must educate these kids to the max and we do not have an equal amount of funding compared to what we’re expected to do. I’m glad you found at least a little avenue to get more funding,” she said.

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