Pinelands Accepts Shared Service for Special Education Director

Parents’ Objections Have No Sway
By RICK MELLERUP | Mar 27, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

The board of education of the Pinelands Regional School District has unanimously approved a shared service agreement to hire Erin Lichtenwalner, the director of special services at the Little Egg Harbor School District, to fill that same position at Pinelands.

Melissa McCooley, the shared superintendent of schools for both districts, explained why the step was taken during the Superintendent’s Update portion of the March 20 meeting. As she had during a meeting with the parents of special education students on March 7, she defended her decision in a number of ways.

McCooley first screened a chart that showed how Pinelands already shares many services with its several constituent elementary districts, including LEH and Pinelands sharing herself as well as a business administrator, an assistant business administrator and a nighttime custodial supervisor, plus shared business office services among Little Egg Harbor, Pinelands and Bass River districts, shared child study teams with Pinelands and Bass River, and shared food services and technical support with all constituent districts while the LEHSD shares its occupational therapy, physical therapy, world language and English as a Second Language programs with Eagleswood, Tuckerton and Bass River.

She then flashed a screen that showed some area districts with equal or much larger student populations than the combined Pinelands/LEHSD districts had a single director of special education services.

McCooley then expanded the presentation she had made to the special ed parents on March 7, some of whom had complained that they didn’t want one director of special education doing the work of two. Total student populations, or even the number of special education students, she explained, aren’t as important as the number of child study teams a director of special education supervises.

“A special ed director manages teams, not students,” said McCooley.

She presented a chart that showed Lacey Township, for example, with a total student population of a little over 3,000, has seven child study teams, with one director overseeing all seven. Jackson, a much larger school district, has 10 child study teams, overseen by one director and two supervisors. Pinelands and the LEHSD have a combined total student population of 3,180 and have four child study teams, two each.

“So it is not unrealistic to have one director oversee four child study teams,” said McCooley.

“So,” she concluded, “what is the daily impact with this proposed change? Child study teams remain the same in both school districts. We would now have a K-12 relationship with those students and with the parents of those students. The child’s teacher and program is not changing from what it currently is. There’s more collaboration among teams in Little Egg and Pinelands; there’s more continuity of programs; we can expand programs. ... There’s a savings in professional development because now we have more minds working on one thing – we have expertise in Pinelands, we have expertise in Little Egg Harbor – and now we can share those among the districts. There’s more consistency in IEPs (individual educational plans) and programs, so when a child enters into Little Egg Harbor, their IEP, when it goes over to Pinelands, will look more consistent and the parent will be more familiar with that. There’s a common philosophy shared between the two districts, and, of course, all practices will align with federal laws.”

McCooley went on to talk about Lichtenwalner, saying she has three children, two of whom have IEPs – “so she is familiar with the process from the parent perspective as well. ... She does have high school experience as a special ed teacher, she worked on life skills with those students and with super seniors, which are ones going on beyond the four years. When she was in Egg Harbor Township (Atlantic County), she was also a special ed teacher there; she worked in middle school in the behavior program, which is extremely challenging, and she worked in an autism classroom. Then, in that same township, she became a school psychologist, and – what I think is very important – she served on a child study team. So she does have that perspective as a child study team member when becoming a director.”

Several Parents

Have Objections

Despite McCooley’s presentation, some parents of special education students still weren’t pleased.

Tom Beller said a main concern was that it hadn’t been properly explained to parents why Pinelands was jettisoning its own special education director to be replaced with a person who was “tripling” her workload.

“The decision was made based on the findings of a secret audit,” said Beller, “that we have repeatedly asked to be able to examine. We’ve asked what’s in the audit, and we’ve repeatedly been told that maybe eventually they’ll get us a copy. But this is something that should have been done before this proposal was voted on, before the position was eliminated.

“Parents have a right to have their concerns addressed, and they just haven’t been. In fact, when we have tried to address our concerns, we’ve been scolded for daring to contact duly elected members of the board, which is our right to do, and which we would have been able to do in a more appropriate forum had we been notified that any of this was happening. ... None of the parents were here the night of the vote,” he said, referring to when the former Pinelands director of special education was laid off in a reduction in force.

“Since then we’ve been trying to get answers, and all we’re getting is stonewalled and getting attacked for daring to ask questions. So we want this process to be done transparently and honestly, and I would like you to vote no until that can occur.”

Deborah Sloan complained there is no information on either the Little Egg Harbor or Pinelands websites on how to contact board of education members. She explained that her concern was not about shared services per se, or the number of child study teams or students that a director of special education oversaw, but rather the direction that Lichtenwalner took at Little Egg Harbor.

Lichtenwalner’s changes at LEH, Sloan said, “ have not been in the best interest of our community’s most vulnerable students.

“I have never spoken at a board meeting, and I’ve been a teacher for 20 years.”

Michele Collins-Davies complained McCooley hadn’t warned parents of any upcoming changes when the superintendent met with parents of special education students on March 5. Collins-Davis also said Lichtenwalner is not yet an employee of the Pinelands district but has already been involved with Pinelands issues, even answering questions at McCooley’s March 7 meeting with parents, despite the confidential issues that special education engenders.

Charlie Roth wanted to know who else applied for the job as Pinelands’ director of special education.

“It doesn’t pass the giggle test,” said Roth, hinting at “nepotism” and “favoritism.”

No member of the public arose to applaud the plan.

As already stated, the board went on to unanimously approve the shared service agreement although it must be noted that board members Stephen Kubricki and Thomas D. Williams Jr. were absent so couldn’t vote.

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