May 23, 2002 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Tight budgets are forcing Union County school districts to take tighter control of the special education services provided in their schools.

Major changes may be on the horizon as a result.

Look for the six school districts in Union County to begin providing some of their special education services directly rather than through the Union-Baker Education Service District.

This will occur if a new consortium agreement involving school districts in Union and Baker counties is adopted.

"Anytime there is a budget crunch, school districts want a tighter grip on their dollars. This (the new agreement) will give us more control,'' said Jay Rowell, the La Grande School District's director of curriculum and personnel.

Presently, the school districts receive all of their special education services from the Union-Baker Education Service District, based in Island City. The school districts pay the ESD for services. The ESD pools the money and provides services to school districts in the two counties.

Under the new agreement, the consortium will remain in place but on a reduced level. Members of the consortium will receive five services instead of 12. The services the members will receive include occupational and physical therapy, speech therapy, diagnostician services, nursing and supervision of ESD programs.

The school districts will pay for the other eight service categories on an as-needed basis. They will pay for them directly or contract with the ESD or another school district.

Union-Baker Education Service District Superintendent Ed Schumacher said the change will have a significant impact on the ESD. He explained that the district will be put into the position of having to market its services.

"It creates some risks for us,'' he said. "We will have to operate more like a business than a public entity. ... We will have to be more responsive to school districts and more customer-oriented.''

Schumacher believes that in the long run the change will benefit everyone but that the transition might be difficult.

Cove School District Superintendent Arnold Coe supports the change.

"I think it is very positive. It is a more business-like way to do business. I am paying for what I use and not paying for what I don't use,'' Coe said.

Union School District Superintendent Mike Wood believes the change will be successful.

"It will be workable; it will be a different way of continuing to do business,'' he said.

North Powder School District Superintendent Kerri Smith also believes that the new plan will be successful.

"We will welcome the opportunity it will provide,'' Smith said.

She noted that her district will continue to have a teacher who serves students with special needs. The difference is that now this teacher will be paid by the North Powder district instead of the ESD.

Smith said that this will be a positive thing. She explained that the resource room teacher will feel more connected to the staff.

Under the new consortium agreement, schools with "medically fragile'' students with high needs will also have to pay for these students' education needs directly. Presently the needs of such students are covered through the Union-Baker ESD consortium.

The La Grande School District will provide its own services for its high-need students. The smaller school districts in Union County will probably have to contract with La Grande their high-needs special education students.

Small school districts with high-needs special education students, will likely face a tough financial crunch. These include the Imbler School District, which has several high-needs students.

Imbler Superintendent Larry Glaze said that providing for these students will be difficult financially.

"It will have a major impact on our budget,'' Glaze said.

Under the present system, school districts with high-needs students do not pay more than districts who do not have any such students.

The new consortium agreement will become official once enough school boards in Union and Baker counties pass resolutions approving it. Six school boards must pass resolutions supporting the consortium change.

The total must include the La Grande or Baker school boards. The La Grande School Board passed a resolution on Wednesday approving the consortium change.

Schumacher believes the change will ultimately be adopted.