Gateway Elementary School

Students, staff and families of the Gateway school complex christened a walking path around the school grounds on September 26, 2018. Gateway Michael Elementary School serves students in St. Louis Public Schools with disabilities.

St. Louis residents could gain the ability to vote to join the Special School District of St. Louis County and significantly increase the level of resources for special education in the city’s public schools. 

The Missouri House of Representatives passed legislation last week that would allow one special school district to be annexed by another, essentially paving the way for a multistep process toward having a single, dedicated provider of special education for both the city and county.

Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) provides all special education needs across the county’s 22 public school districts. It’s funded through an additional property tax levy. 

Special education services in St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) have long carried the stigma of being woefully below the bar set by Special School District. Having SSD serve special education children in the city could help keep more families in the city’s public school system.

“We hear all the time from parents of students in St. Louis city who feel like the special education services in the city are not up to par and are not a great fit for their kids,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin.

If Dogan’s legislation becomes law, St. Louis residents would have to vote first to form a special school district, which would likely require authorizing a property tax increase. They would then have to vote a second time to be annexed by the county’s special school district.

“We are concerned over residents of St. Louis County not having a say in this,” said Nancy Ide, the spokeswoman for SSD.

It would create “a little too steep a hurdle” for county residents to vote on whether to allow St. Louis into the SSD, Dogan said, but added he is open to the law being changed in the state Senate so the SSD's board can approve the merger. 

SSD serves more than 23,000 children across all school districts in the county, and also runs alternative and vocational schools. St. Louis County property owners pay about $227 a year for each $100,000 a building is worth to SSD. It has a $460.1 million annual budget, spending an average of $15,100 per child it serves, according to its public figures.

SLPS’s total budget is $392.5 million. It serves 6,700 special needs students out of its total of 21,800. 

Jennifer Elam and her husband toured a half-dozen schools in the city before settling on SLPS’s Mason Elementary in the Clifton Heights neighborhood because it had a dedicated special education room.

The Elams loved their son Brandt’s first teacher, but Jennifer left after two years to take a job in the county. Since then, there have been more ups and downs with teachers for Brandt, 7. He had a dedicated but inexperienced first-year teacher. He currently has an aide with whom he bonded.

“There's definitely more turnover in both the teachers and the therapists because of pay,” Elam said.

Starting salary for an SSD teacher is $43,700. The same position in SLPS pays a little more than $39,000. There are currently a half-dozen openings for special education teachers in city schools.

Elam doubts that every blade of grass is greener in the county but knows the resources are more plentiful. She seeks out additional services and advocates with the school and district administrators. 

“I think all special-needs parents, regardless of where you are, you have to be super vigilant about everything, your relationship with the teacher, your relationship with the aides, your relationship with all the therapists, and be really on it,” she said.

Elam said her family is committed to St. Louis and SLPS. She even contacted the district about forming a parent group. She supports the idea of SSD serving the city, to make special education services more equitable across the region. 

“We don't really want to move,” she said. “But I feel like you have to be kind of vigilant year by year to see how things are going.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney.

Reprinted with permission from news.stlpublicradio.org.

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