The Columbia School Board voted unanimously Thursday to not renew its contract with Special Education Services Inc.

This means the district will be responsible for providing educational programming for the about 30 students currently receiving services through SESI in its FOCUS program. These are students with intense special needs.

The decision follows a year of controversy about the contract and SESI’s management of FOCUS, which has been based at the district’s Center of Responsive Education, or CORE.

Concerns about student seclusion and restraint have been at issue publicly since a September 2019 School Board meeting. In March, the district and SESI declined invitations to a state legislature hearing on a bill that would ban seclusion. The district already prohibits seclusion, though FOCUS does use “safe rooms” and both it and the district use restraint.

The decision not to renew the contract followed a board discussion about changes that would have been made had the contract been renewed.

The changes included: new online learning policies; adding art, music and gym classes; an “open door” policy between the district and SESI relating to oversight; a fine for uncertified staff members; a new structure for reporting and processing complaints; defining restraint; requiring SESI to adhere to board policy; allowing the district access to SESI disciplinary records at the “frequency requested”; and a new indemnification clause.

Some changes, such as the addition of art, gym and music, were positively received. Other changes, like the indemnification clause, which addresses liability, caused significant concern among several board members.

Board President Helen Wade, an attorney, said the indemnification clause gave her “more than pause.” She said it shows SESI trying to avoid liability.

“It doesn’t feel right to me,” Wade said. “This doesn’t feel like a true partnership.”

The board as a whole expressed the difficulty in making the decision about the contract.

Board member Teresa Maledy said she had received both positive comments and concerns from parents and could see two sides of the situation.

Superintendent Peter Stiepleman presented the district’s alternative. “If we don’t approve this contract, we would need to take it on ourselves,” he said, referring to providing services for the FOCUS students.

Board member Della Streaty-Wilhoit responded, saying the board has evidence of the district’s ability to “turn on a dime” after observing its response to COVID-19.

“I think we need to take that same approach,” Streaty-Wilhoit said. “It’s going to be hard, yes, but it is possible.”

After 40 minutes of board discussion, the floor opened for public comment. Ten community members spoke, every one of them urging the board to not approve the contract.

Sara Rivera, a parent who had spoken at previous meetings, said that the board had been discussing the monetary cost of the contract but that some costs were greater than money.

“If CPS kept students in CPS classrooms, we wouldn’t have been called to the Capitol,” Rivera said.

Robyn Schelp, a district parent and president of Missouri Disability Empowerment, said a board member reached out to her to discuss the contract changes. Schelp said the contract was stronger than before but not strong enough, and she asked the board not to renew.

Several parents expressed their belief in the district’s special education teachers’ ability to work with the students in the FOCUS program.

“I know our CPS teachers can do better,” parent Christina Ingoglia said.

Other commenters included parents Lara Wakefield, Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, Tara Arnett, Michelle Ribaudo and Ana Compain-Romero as well as former district and SESI employees Holly Sturek and Angela Jasper.

The current contract with SESI for the FOCUS program expires July 31. Going forward, district spokesperson Michelle Baumstark echoed Stiepleman’s comment, saying the next step will be to “pursue how we would handle it internally.”

“We have an obligation as a public school to serve all of our students,” Baumstark said. “There will be a lot of work that needs to be completed in an extremely short period.”

  • Education reporter, spring 2020, studying investigative journalism and sociology. Reach me at jessica.blake@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • Elizabeth Brixey is a city editor at the Columbia Missourian. She oversees coverage of education. She can be reached at (573) 882-2632 and brixeye@missouri.edu.

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