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Pathway Laid Out For St. Louis To Possibly Join County's Special Education District

Students, staff and families of the Gateway school complex christen a walking path around the school grounds on Sept. 26, 2018. Gateway Michael Elementary School serves students in St. Louis Public Schools with disabilities.
Wiley Price | St. Louis American
Students, staff and families of the Gateway school complex christen a walking path around the school grounds on Sept. 26, 2018. Gateway Michael Elementary School serves students in St. Louis Public Schools with disabilities.

Updated March 11 with additional budget info from SLPS

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 provides all special education needs across the county’s 22 public school districts. It’s funded through an additional property tax levy. 

‘Not up to par’

Special education servicesin St. Louis Public Schools 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, 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 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 and $256.7 million in reserves, according to its public figures.

SLPS’s budget for special education services is $43.4 million for 6,700 special needs students out of its total of 21,800. Both SLPS and SSD say they spend a little more than $15,000 a year per student — $15,300 and $15,100, respectively.

‘We don’t really want to move’

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 Brandt’s first teacher, but she 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 ed 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 says 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-ed 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

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Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Ryan Delaney works on the Innovation Trail project - covering technology, economic development, startups and other issues relating to New York's innovation economy.
Ryan Delaney
Ryan is a reporter on the education desk at St. Louis Public Radio, covering both higher education and the many school districts in the St. Louis region. He has previously reported for public radio stations WFYI in Indianapolis and WRVO in upstate New York. He began his journalism career working part time for WAER while attending Syracuse University. He's won multiple reporting awards and his work, which has aired on NPR, The Takeaway and WGBH's Innovation Hub. Having grown up in Burlington, Vt., he often spends time being in the woods hiking, camping, and skiing.