Special-education programs draw from district M&O levy dollars

January 14, 2014

By Neil Pierson

Like her fellow administrators around the Issaquah School District, Michelle Caponigro is concerned about providing resources for her special-education students.

By Greg Farrar Michelle Caponigro, Pine Lake Middle School principal, visits a computer lab classroom Jan. 10 while giving a tour of the school.

By Greg Farrar
Michelle Caponigro, Pine Lake Middle School principal, visits a computer lab classroom Jan. 10 while giving a tour of the school.

For Caponigro, the principal at Pine Lake Middle School, that means having teachers in two learning resource centers — an LRC I class for students with specific learning disabilities who spend much of their day in a general classroom setting and an LRC II class for students with “significant challenges” who are more difficult to manage.

Of Pine Lake’s 847 students, about 60 are served by a special-education program, Caponigro said. There are three full-time LRC teachers at the school, a fraction of its certificated teaching staff of 40.

Kathy Connally, principal at Endeavour Elementary School, has similar demographics. To serve her 660 students, she has two full-time LRC teachers and one to run a Learning Assistance Program, which helps students who don’t make grade-level scores on state assessments.

“Special-education services cover a wide range of needs for students,” Connally said. “They cover academic needs … and they touch on building social skills.”

Transportation levy

The Issaquah School District will have three levy measures on the Feb. 11 ballot. One is a one-year, $1.7 million proposal to purchase 71 new buses, which will replace existing buses at the end of their life span and help the district deal with future enrollment growth.
Jake Kuper, the district’s chief of finance and operations, said the new buses are more fuel-efficient, and will save between 1 and 3 miles per gallon. If Issaquah improved its entire bus fleet by 1 mile per gallon, it would save about $100,000 annually in diesel fuel costs.
Kuper said all of the district’s buses are compliant with state-mandated safety standards, and the fleet generally receives “exemplary results” from its two annual Washington State Patrol inspections.
Issaquah passed similar one-year transportation levies in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010. The upcoming proposal would collect 9 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value — a one-time $45 fee on a $500,000 home — and is the lowest cost of any of the past five transportation measures.
The $1.7 million in voter-approved money would be combined with an estimated $4.5 million in state funds and about $2.1 million from the district’s transportation reserve fund to pay for the 71 new buses.
Issaquah plans to purchase 42 large diesel buses with options — upgraded transmissions and gear ratios to deal with the district’s steep terrain — at a cost of $130,000 each. The remaining 29 buses would be smaller in size and cost about $65,000 each.
Kuper said the district replaces its vehicles based on their average life span — 13 years for larger buses and eight years for smaller buses.

Like salaries, curriculum and extracurricular activities, special education is something the state doesn’t fully fund, and most districts address the issue every four years or so by placing a maintenance and operations levy before voters.

In Issaquah, the next M&O levy will be on the Feb. 11 ballot. The district is seeking $198 million between 2015 and 2018, which will cover about 21 percent of its classroom costs.

Educational assistants, or EAs — hourly-wage employees who aren’t certified teachers — are a key component of successful classrooms, Connally said.

At Endeavour, that includes a speech and language pathologist, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist and help for English language learners — students whose native tongue isn’t English.

While Connally said it varies how much Endeavour students need EAs, they are always a necessity to some degree.

“It honestly changes every single year, and it grows every single year,” she said. “My ELL population has doubled in the course of the last five years.”

M&O money also helps pay for elective courses. At Pine Lake, Caponigro said, electives have given students an outlet they haven’t found elsewhere. For example, the school has an integrated projects class that teaches basic tool use. Some eighth-grade boys have been “lighting up” with excitement as they work to fix a talking prop for an upcoming school play, she said.

In other Pine Lake classrooms, orchestra students perform classical music, and culinary arts students make salsa. Skyline High School students often return to Pine Lake to use the wood shop, because they don’t have their own.

The common denominator for kids? Electives “often end up being the best part of their day,” Caponigro said.

In order to integrate the most up-to-date technology in classrooms, teachers have to participate in training sessions. Levy dollars help offset the cost, Connally said, because most training takes place outside the regular school day and teachers receive compensation for their time.

Connally, who has worked with the Issaquah district for 20 years, said one of the most popular training programs she’s seen is the Issaquah Technology Project, an idea that mushroomed out of working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

More than a dozen of her Endeavour staff members have attended the annual “weeklong immersion training” in Leavenworth.

“I think that catches on like wildfire, because teachers are really inundated with all kinds of technology that they can be using in the classroom with their kids and their instruction,” Connally said. “And they do it in a really collaborative way — they bring teams of teachers in to work together.”

Extracurricular activities are another area fueled by M&O dollars. Pine Lake has a wide variety of clubs — including robotics, math, geography and drama — and athletics. The track team typically has 300 kids turn out, Caponigro said.

“We have a four-season sports calendar, so we run the full gamut of middle-school athletics — volleyball, cross country, basketball, wrestling, track,” she said.


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