LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Pinelands Regional School District’s director of special education position may soon become another shared service with Little Egg Harbor, the superintendent said last week after the board approved scrapping the position, upsetting some parents of students with special needs.
The job was eliminated by the school board at its Feb. 26 meeting and, on the same agenda, the board approved hiring educational consultant Thomas Hand at $425 per day to oversee the department’s transition.
Not everyone was happy about the decision to consolidate. Parents of special education students say they were caught off guard and felt like the removal of Director of Special Education Ellen Ward from the position was done in secret.
“It seemed very underhanded and sort of sneaky,” said Jane Beller, who has a child with autism in the district.
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Beller said she found out the position was eliminated two days after the meeting.
Superintendent Melissa McCooley said Hand, who previously worked as a special education director for the Galloway Township School District, was brought in to fill in for 60 days and “clean up the department.”
“If anything, I think it’s going to be better because we still have our child study team in place, and the consultant I am bringing in has years in special education,” McCooley said.
McCooley is the shared superintendent between Little Egg Harbor, a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade local district, and Pinelands, a seventh-through-12th-grade regional district. Other shared services include the district business administrator and assistant business administrator, child study team, food service and information technology.
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The regional district serves 1,600 students from the township as well as Tuckerton and Eagleswood Township in Ocean County and Bass River Township in Burlington County. There are about 350 full-time special education and 40 shared-time students.
The district’s special education budget is about $3 million and it received $1.1 million in state aid for the program this school year, according to its budget.
McCooley said she had some concerns about the special education department when she got to the district in June but didn’t disclose what they were because they were “sensitive and confidential.” Records show an audit of the special education department by Shelly Myers was approved in July by the school board at a cost of $1,000.
“I decided to take the department in a different direction because of the amount of money being spent in certain areas that I think we could spend more efficiently,” McCooley said.
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Ward, who earned an annual salary of $123,000, will be paid for the 60 days the consultant is in place. After that, McCooley said, the school board will consider approving a shared-service agreement with Little Egg Harbor Township for its special education director, Erin Lichtenwalner, who currently earns $111,000.
Beller said she had a bad experience two years ago in the Little Egg Harbor Township School District when her son was in sixth grade and Lichtenwalner was hired there. She said her son has been thriving since being at Pinelands.
“And I’m terrified it’s going to go back to how it was before,” Beller said.
Beller said the more immediate concern is that one person will be split between two districts, which she said is too much work for one person.
Christina Schadewald, of Little Egg Harbor, has three children with autism in the district and said she never received notification of the change.
“It’s very discouraging. We feel like our kids are pushed aside right away. Ellen Ward, she went to bat for our kids, and I think we should have had the right to go in and say something on her behalf,” Schadewald said.
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Debra Sloan, of Little Egg Harbor, who has one son with autism in the district, said the parents are not trying to sensationalize the issue, but to ensure their students receive the best education. She questioned the intent of the school administration in creating the shared-service agreement.
Sloan said Ward was open-minded and quick to respond to parents’ questions and concerns.
“Having a special-needs child, you always have to fight, fight, fight, and here was one person who was really advocating for the kids,” she said.
Pinelands announced this week it would hold a special meeting Thursday to answer parents’ concerns about the changes in the special education program.