After a rigorous discussion at the school board meeting on Monday night, three school members approved shifting the way the district employs speech therapists from a contracted model to hiring three full time speech therapists and one part time speech therapist.
School board members Nan Pugh, Mary Mello and Chris Isaacson voted in favor of the restructured employment process with Ben Kearsley abstaining from the vote. School board member Delwyn Jensen was not present at Monday’s meeting.
Nicole Elliott, Special Education Director for Teton School District, presented the case to the board asking for the three and half positions that would move the eight contracted speech therapists off the current budget. She anticipates a cost savings of almost $20,000. She said she would like to take the cost savings earned through the new speech therapy employment model and invest that money into a part time special education teacher at Teton High School.
The school district has realized a 56 students increase since 2014 in the special education department. Since 2014, the department increased its teaching staff by one and a half.
Currently there are ten full time special education teachers and one part time teacher managing 235 special needs students. The average caseload for a special education teacher is 19.
Two contracted speech therapists expressed concern to the school board saying that shifting from contracted speech therapy services, to hiring three and half employees would likely not cover the amount of needs the district has to serve those students who utilize the services.
“I know Nicole went through a lot of work and did include us,” 20-year veteran speech therapist Karen LaDuke said at the meeting. “I think the three and half staff positions is low. Based on experience, I think that you will see that three and half will not be enough to keep services at the same level.”
Cindy Walker, a contracted speech therapist with the school district added that she works often without a lunch and preparation period so she can fit students in during the week.
“If I was on a teacher’s schedule, I would expect to have a lunch and prep and that would reduce the number of kids I could see in the day,” Walker said to the board.
Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme said at the meeting that he as seen the program work with hired staff as well as with contracted workers. He supported Elliott’s efforts to find cost savings that could be used in other departments such as special education. He also acknowledged some of the unknowns in taking this step including the idea that if the board chose to move in a new direction, would the district attract speech therapists who would want to work at a teacher’s salary?
“My top priority is what are we doing for the students,” Kearsley said at the meeting. “That’s my main and first concern.”
Elliott backed her plan saying that she knows speech therapists who would likely apply for a position at the school district rather than work under a contract. She added that providing additional, professional support to special education needs at the secondary level was keeping in pace with the new model of learning for students with special needs. This model was an inclusionary model that brought special needs students into mainstream classrooms. Having an additional special education teacher to support that new model was important to the overall vision of the inclusionary model said Elliott.
Pugh said she would take the step and offered a motion to hire three full time speech therapists and one half time therapist under the auspices that cost savings would be realized with the new plan and that a mix of hired staff and contractors could be needed to fulfill student needs.
Kearsley said he did not like the idea of voting for a plan with unknown outcomes. He abstained from the vote.