In April, Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) announced in a press release that, due to a significant increase in both the number of students and the level of student needs served in the past decade—particularly, the intensive needs of students requiring special education services—they were moving forward with the development of a regional student support center to meet those needs in a way that creates a more positive and productive experience for students, families, and staff.

As JCPS noted, the center would provide the highly specialized behavioral and medical services required to meet student needs in the county. The training to meet these needs would be delivered to JCPS staff. The jobs generated by this program would go to Jefferson County citizens. And the revenue would stay in Jefferson County.

To that end, JCPS has been working collaboratively with the West Virginia Department of Education and private providers to develop a multi-year plan for this transition. Additionally, they’ve collaborated with partners in Berkeley County Schools (BCS) as they struggle with many of the same issues. BCS has agreed to purchase placements in the program as a cost-effective and positive way to meet student needs regionally. As a result, the Jefferson County Board of Education (JCBOE) has committed itself to obtaining a location sufficiently large and conveniently located to support the needed infrastructure for such a center to be successful.

Acknowledging Reality

About a week after the JCPS announcement (mid-April), controversial Danish insulation company, Rockwool, filed a lawsuit against the JCBOE disputing its choice of a site for the center. According to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia, the JCBOE initially offered to buy 194.7 acres from Rockwool’s current property—on land formerly known as Jefferson Orchards.

Rockwool’s lawsuit alleges that, after declining the offer, the JCBOE then “threatened to condemn the property.” The company’s legal firm of Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC released a statement on behalf of Rockwool—describing the JCBOE’s attempt as an abuse of power.

It comes as no surprise that neither side—Rockwool nor the JCBOE—will comment, as the current situation remains in litigation, but Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bondy Shay Gibson is quick to point out that the regional student support center is anything but a response to Rockwool or some perceived knee-jerk abuse of power.

Dr. Bondy Shay Gibson

Dr. Bondy Shay Gibson

“The center is not only a need, but it’s been in development for some time—in response to the evolving student population, and their needs,” she emphasized. “It’s a difficult problem to solve. I get it. But whatever mechanism you have, you need to acknowledge the reality, and not refuse to deal with it because it’s such a complex problem.”

The problem Gibson is highlighting is the fact that JCPS has seen a consistent and concerning increase in recent years in students that require special-needs services. “In the last five years, and at progressively younger levels, we’ve seen a three-hundred-percent increase in the number of referrals for preschoolers with rather serious disabilities,” she indicated. “So what that tells us is there’s a wave coming, and we know if we don’t get intervention services down here, it’s only going to get more serious, and more expensive.”

Missing Mechanism  

The key challenge for JCPS at this point, and thus the impetus for the student support center, is the necessity to both provide and pay for the highly specialized services and placements for children whose medical or behavioral needs are beyond current staff capacity. In addition to the range of existing learning, behavioral, emotional, health, and family history needs that are currently served for applicable students within JCPS (over 1,400 with identified disabilities throughout all county schools and grade levels), Gibson is also facing a newer, albeit equally complicated, reality—a significant increase in the number of children who are victims of either Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (in utero exposure to opioids) or the victims of abuse and neglect from an addicted or incarcerated parent.

“There is no one in education who begrudges meeting a student’s needs,” she affirmed. “The problem arises when you have a group of students that, through no fault of their own, have needs that have to be met in a very cost- and staff-intensive way.”

Gibson explained that around 14 percent of the JCPS student population are students with identified disabilities—those who receive special education services. But JCPS spends a little over 25 percent of its overall budget on this population—with about 30 percent of its overall staff serving just those students.

“So yes, they require a disproportionate amount of our resources, and what’s happened is that the state hasn’t set up any mechanism that is recognizing this scenario,” she said. “So what happens within the school system is—I’m morally, ethically, legally obligated to give these kids what they need—and what ‘this kid’ needs is a full-time aid or BCBA [Board Certified Behavior Analyst] services or occupational therapy or physical therapy, and/or this array of wraparound services. And if I don’t have any additional funding to meet that need, I have to take that from somewhere else, which ends up squeezing our other instructional programs and giving us less bandwidth both in terms of money, staff, and employee time to innovate and create programs somewhere else.

“You’re setting up a dynamic where there’s a conflict over resources. By law, you have to meet all the needs of all students, but the current mechanism intended to support us doing that doesn’t acknowledge the reality of the situation—and it’s killing educational programs across the state.”

Undeniable Need

On a surprisingly related note, the U.S. Department of Justice announced last month that, after a nearly five-year investigation, it has reached an agreement with West Virginia to resolve an Americans With Disabilities Act Investigation of West Virginia’s Mental Health System.

At a press conference, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband explained, “The agreement commits West Virginia to expand services for children with serious emotional or behavior disorders. They can remain in their communities and live with their families or foster families while receiving the mental health services they need instead of having to live in segregated residential facilities often far from home.”

The services that will be expanded in the state include wraparound facilitation, behavioral support services, family support and training services, in-home therapy, children’s mobile crisis response, therapeutic foster care, and assertive community treatment.

Whether this development, the awareness generated, and the resulting influence will ripple through the Mountain State’s many education mechanisms remains to be seen, but Gibson maintained that JCPS will continue to address its own current and emerging needs-based realities, because, well, what other option do they have?

“The total cost of sending students out of state, as we do now for many of these children, exceeds two million dollars annually, which primarily comprises tuition and transportation,” she noted. “In addition to the students receiving special education services, there are a number of general education students suffering from trauma. We meet these students’ needs through employment of clinical social workers, mental health therapists, school counselors, mentors, and a host of other support mechanisms. But funds are limited, so as a result, they are scattered across seventeen schools.”

While every school system in West Virginia is experiencing a significant increase in needs without additional sources of revenue for training, staff, and equipment—and with the problem being exacerbated when school systems, like Jefferson County, have to send funds outside of the state to meet those needs—JCPS is bravely moving forward on an enormous and undeniable need: the regional student support center

“Depending on a lot of moving parts—in an ideal world—CEFP [comprehensive education facilities plan] approval, voter approval of a bond, and architectural land surveys, we could feasibly be breaking ground in two years, looking to open in three,” explained Gibson. “What I envision is that we’ll develop the plans for the whole thing, and then, depending on the total cost, we’ll probably do it in stages—a tiered process. Obviously, given the size of the potential population that could use it, there couldn’t be a facility big enough to house all of these students, a thousand kids, but I would say that, depending on which aspects of this program we develop, population would be no more than a couple hundred kids at a time. That’s the plan—as it has been for years—far ahead of any announcement by West Virginia and/or despite what some people may believe. We intend to support our students, and give them the services they need.”

— The Observer plans to follow this story as it evolves.

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