Pinelands Regional Superintendent, Parents Spar Over Special Ed Department

Some Don’t Want to Share Director With Another District
Mar 13, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Pinelands Regional School District Superintendent Melissa McCooley met with a couple of dozen concerned parents of children enrolled in special education classes on Thursday evening. It is difficult to judge whether the meeting calmed passions raised by the board of education vote at its Feb. 26 meeting that resulted in a reduction in force and the layoff of Director of Special Education Ellen Ward. After meeting with McCooley, some parents remained angry with the board decision, while others seemed to be looking forward to changes in the special education department.

McCooley and members of the board had been reluctant to explain the layoff at the Feb. 26 meeting. Board Vice President Patricia Chambers, who chaired the meeting in the absence of board President Susan M. Ernst, at first said she could not comment because it was a personnel issue.

When pressed further, McCooley simply said, “I’ve been here now since June of 2018. I’ve had the time now to do a careful analysis of all departments, as well as our budgetary concerns, and I’ve decided to move in a different direction.” When asked if that different direction would be a shared-services agreement, McCooley said, “It could be, moving forward.”

Some parents were very displeased about the decision to lay off Ward, with no public discussion and no warning. They registered their complaints with McCooley and The SandPaper. McCooley then arranged for Thursday evening’s meeting.



At Thursday night’s meeting between McCooley and parents, there was no more “could be” regarding the Little Egg Harbor School District and Pinelands Regional School District sharing a director of special education. That is the path the two districts would like to follow in the future, as soon as the two school boards can formally approve the arrangement at their regular meetings. In fact, the woman who would fill both jobs, current LEHSD Director of Special Services Erin Lichtenwalner, was present on Thursday.

McCooley started Thursday evening’s 90-minute meeting by saying Pinelands already shares a number of services with some of its sending districts. Indeed, Pinelands and Little Egg Harbor share McCooley as superintendent, Business Administrator Nick Brown, a new assistant business administrator recently hired, food services, and a night maintenance supervisor. Pinelands also shares a child study team with another sending district, Bass River Township, as well as computer/technology services with all four Pinelands sending districts, which includes Eagleswood Township.

McCooley then presented a chart that showed one director of special education serving more than one school was nothing unusual.

The chart showed that the K-12 Barnegat School District, with some 3,090 students, has a director of special services and a supervisor of special services. The Toms River School District, which has more than 15,000 students in numerous schools, has one director of special services. The list went on, with several other districts with far more students than Pinelands, and some with more students than PRSD and LEHSD combined, having just one director of special education.

McCooley and Thomas Hand – whom the PRSD board hired as an educational consultant at $425 per day for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, and who told parents he has more than 35 years experience in education, including a long stint as director of special education at another district – stressed throughout the meeting that a K-12 director of special education led to more continuity and a common philosophy.

“It’s so much better in the K-12 districts,” said Hand.

Some Parents

Very Wary

A few parents strongly disagreed.

“You (McCooley) got rid of a whole person, leaving us with one-half person,” said one man. (In the informal meeting atmosphere, none of the parents identified themselves.)

“One school is enough,” said a woman.

Parents with autistic children were especially concerned.

“I understand Little Egg Harbor got rid of its autism program,” said a woman.

“We’re going to expand the autism program,” said McCooley.

“We made them (LEH classes) all (designated) multiple disabled,” said Lichtenwalner. “We call it MD. We can legally go up to 12 students (in a classroom).”

The woman who opened the autism topic replied that the student-to-teacher ratio in autism classes had been 3-1.

“How is it going to benefit the children?” another woman asked about having one director for two separate school districts.

“I don’t really want to talk about the ex-director at all,” said McCooley.

“The director is not involved in day-to-day activity,” said Hand.

“Parents’ rights for special needs has been horrendous,” responded the second woman.

“Mr. Hand and I have met with a lot of staff,” said Lichtenwalner. “If there is a transition, we want to make it as seamless as possible.”

“Weren’t the child study teams aware of our rights?” that second woman asked.

McCooley said Lichtenwalner had “straightened out messes” at the Little Egg Harbor District. She added that the child study teams at Pinelands are fine, that “they just needed more guidance and direction.”

“You’re not coming up with examples of what wasn’t right,” said the first man.

McCooley said if the director of special education position at Pinelands became shared with Little Egg Harbor, it would save both districts approximately $70,000 a year.

In the meantime, Pinelands will be paying two salaries for two months. Ward is no longer with the district but is being paid; Hand is being paid as an educational consultant at the same time.

A Split


At one point, the first man in the audience who spoke asked for a show of hands. How many parents were happy with the Pinelands Special Education Department as it had been, and how many were dissatisfied? About the same number of hands went up after each question, revealing it would be hard to satisfy everybody.

So expect more debate about the issue at the next PRSD Board of Education meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 20.

One man told The SandPaper he will insist on seeing an audit that McCooley said had proved the need for a change in Pinelands’ special education department. McCooley had said at the parents’ meeting that an attorney would have to redact the audit before it could be made public.

A woman contacted The SandPaper after the meeting, accusing McCooley of lying. The caller said she had researched the issue, and some of the superintendent’s “one director” districts have more special education administrators. For example, Southern Regional, the woman claimed, has three special education supervisors – one in its middle school, another in its high school, and one specifically dedicated to autism.

The woman also asserted that MD programs aren’t the answer.

“We have children who have different issues,” she wrote, “and different types of sensory issues that need classrooms geared for them, not all piled together into a MD program to make classrooms bigger so that our children get lost in the system. Erin, McCooley and the rest of the board of education have no clue or idea what it’s like to walk in our shoes. So don’t talk till you have come over to our side of the sidewalk!”

— Rick Mellerup

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