Department of Education denies Steamboat's request to withdraw from NW BOCES

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— Steamboat Springs School District’s request to withdraw from the Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services and become its own special education administrative unit was denied by the state’s Department of Education on Thursday.

CDE reported that the district failed to present an application that demonstrated “clear and convincing evidence” that it could meet all of its obligations as its own separate administrative unit. The rejection letter — written by CDE Assistant Commissioner and State Director of Special Education Randy Boyer — also stated that Northwest BOCES would have incurred “significant financial hardship” if Steamboat’s request was approved.

The district first announced in late August that it wished to manage its own special education program, citing convenience and efficiency purposes.

BOCES serves six rural school districts — Steamboat, Hayden, South Routt, North Park, East Grand and West Grand — with Steamboat representing nearly half of the cooperative’s special education budget.

BOCES is served by just one special education director and a limited number of staff members who serve the six spread-out districts. If CDE had approved Steamboat’s proposal, the district would have immediately moved forward with hiring its own special education director as well as filling out its own special education staff.

As Steamboat’s push to withdraw continued, CDE asked for more information and required the district to bring in a third-party financial consultant in late September to hash out the ramifications should the move go through.

Howard Tucker, a former finance director for two Colorado school districts, calculated in his report that BOCES would have to dip into its reserve fund by as much as $85,000 in its first year if CDE approved Steamboat’s request. The district argued that NW BOCES has a $440,000 fund balance that could be used to make up for the first-year $85,000 setback, but the cooperative’s Executive Director Amy Bollinger said some of Tucker’s figures didn’t accurately reflect the financial hardship BOCES could face if Steamboat was allowed to withdraw.

“The information that (Tucker) had used, he did have those amounts correct, but he had actually used them incorrectly,” Bollinger said. “The bottom line for impact on the five districts was inaccurately stated in Mr. Tucker’s report. There was more of an impact than he had stated.”

NW BOCES and Tucker indicated that the cooperative indeed would suffer a significant negative financial impact, but the two parties’ numbers didn’t correlate, according to CDE’s letter. NW BOCES officials said the shortfall would be about $874,000 while Tucker calculated a setback of $730,658.

Boyer added in the letter that Steamboat’s application had the opposite effect of the district’s ultimate goal, saying its request actually demonstrates “clear and convincing evidence” that NW BOCES would not be able to meet its existing services if the largest district in the cooperative withdrew.

One major concern for NW BOCES was the effect the move would have had on current employees.

“Had they been approved, it would have meant that we would have become about half of the size employee wise,” Bollinger said. “Half of the size of the special education students who need the staff and half of the staff as well.”

The letter from CDE supported Bollinger’s claims.

“It (Steamboat’s withdrawal) would jeopardize the BOCES’ ability to hire and retain adequate staff or continue to provide the full spectrum of special education and related services that it is obligated to provide,” Boyer said in the letter.

Boyer also noted in the letter that CDE’s Exceptional Student Services Unit is undertaking a new monitoring system for administrative units across the state, and that Steamboat creating another unit to oversee would impair the department’s ability to effectively look out for the others in Colorado’s school system.

Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks called CDE’s decision disappointing, but he said the district stands by its application.

“I think our reasoning for asking for the independent administrative unit status is still true today,” Meeks said. “We’ll take a look at what CDE is saying on why they didn’t approve it at this point, and we’ll see what’s our best option moving forward.”

Steamboat has a 60-day window from Dec. 19 to appeal CDE’s decision, but Meeks didn’t say whether the district would go in that direction. If the district wishes to reapply, applications for the 2015-16 school year would be due Sept. 1, 2014.

To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll

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