JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - Remember your school custodian? The lunch lady, or your bus driver? Not that long ago, they were all employed by your school district. But times are changing in education.
Schools have been "outsourcing," or contracting outside labor for specialized jobs like occupational and physical therapy for children for a while.
To many districts, it is a sound financial decision for a highly specialized service.
But is this a slippery slope? Where do you stop? The answer for some—is like nails on a chalkboard.
Shannon Beeson works as a speech language pathologist and lead speech therapist for the Nettleton Public School District.
"There's a joy I get watching that progression when these kids do something," Beeson said.
She smiles and encourages a student to work her way through basic vowel sides at Fox Meadow Elementary.
Speech therapy is a passion for Beeson.
"My main focus is them. I got into this for the kids and I want to make sure that they get what they need," Beeson said.
But, that may be just a bit harder than she realized. That's because her days and those of her speech therapy colleagues are numbered.
Beeson is one of nine in the Nettleton School District to receive formal notification that their jobs are not being renewed.
"Your position at the Nettleton School District is being eliminated," states a letter from James Dunivan, superintendent of Nettleton Public Schools, dated April 1, 2016. No longer will speech therapists and their local education authority, or LEA, will be employed by the district.
"Who made that decision?" I asked Mr. Dunivan.
"The suggestion rests with me," Dunivan said inside his administrative office located just off Highway 1-555 at 3300 One Place. "It is my responsibility to take a look at what it takes to be a good steward for the district."
With outsourcing speech therapy, the district won't have to pay teacher retirement or benefits like dental insurance.
"Should a light bulb go off for everybody wondering, ok… what's fixing to happen to our educational system?" Beeson quizzed. "Yes, you've got a lot of scared and frustrated people right now."
A mother and grandmother now, she said other instructors in positions like hers within other districts have expressed concern to her for the stability of their jobs. Beeson claims she knows students will continue to learn after her employment is over. The responsibility will just shift in a new direction.
"I truly believe that all the teachers I work with, and all the teachers in our district, will become the full-blown advocates for their students," Beeson said.
Nettleton is not alone in their outsourcing decision. Other districts outsource food services, janitorial, occupational and physical therapy. Someday that list could include transportation.
"I don't foresee that we will outsource any other type of educational programs," Dr. Kim Wilbanks, superintendent of Jonesboro Public Schools, said.
Dr. Wilbanks admits the district already outsources overflow, or extra speech therapy cases that the six full-time speech therapists on the district's payroll cannot get to within their normal caseload.
"Jonesboro will always employ speech therapists," Dr. Wilbanks said.
"Does it purely come down to an issue of money," I asked Dunivan.
"To say it comes down to money, it wasn't just a decision made to save money to put on a bottom line somewhere," Dunivan answered. "Any money saved by the district will be used by all kids."
Superintendent for 12 years at Nettleton, Dunivan said the district was not in financial straits and the change began to be discussed in January.
"My goal is to have a decision and make a recommendation to the school board by the May 17 school board meeting," Dunivan said.
So far, six speech therapy providers have submitted bids. Those include Clearly Speaking Speech Therapy Clinic, Communication Made Easy, Inc., Connex Rehab, Cooper Educational Therapy Services, Jumping Jelly Beans Pediatric Therapy and KidSPOT.
The Nettleton School District told each of the employees being let go by the district that the "Nettleton School District has determined that the expense of maintaining a department of special education services with a supervisor and speech therapists is greater than contracting for those services through an education cooperative exclusively or in combination with contract services."
But, what about the kids who struggle?
A stack of papers measuring at least ten inches deep represents ethic violations by school districts in Arkansas in the first year under a new law, recently modified, for dyslexia.
"You may outsource who cleans your house," Audie Alumbaugh said. "You may outsource your car."
But, Alumbaugh does not think educational services should be outsourced.
She heads up the Arkansas Dyslexia Support Group. She said Nettleton was one of the few school districts doing things right.
"Lynn Cooper at Nettleton has been way ahead of the curve with regards to dyslexia and dyslexia intervention," Alumbaugh said.
Under Arkansas' dyslexia law passed in 2013, school districts were required to report the number of students exhibiting characteristics of dyslexia. Nettleton reported the most cases in the Craighead County area with 78 in the 2014-2015 school year.
Jonesboro, the largest district in the county, reported only 2. Since that time, Jonesboro Public Schools have increased that number to more than 250 students.
Westside and Brookland school districts found themselves among the huge stack of violations for not reporting. Speech therapists and dyslexia services at Nettleton have been uniquely tied.
"We're trained in phonemic awareness," Beeson explained. "That's the basic reading skill."
The push across Region 8 school districts has been to train interventionists, paraprofessionals, and classroom teachers--not just speech therapists--to recognize dyslexia.
But, Alumbaugh says that's not working--because no one is enforcing the law.
"Sixty-eight percent of schoolchildren in Arkansas read below grade level," Alumbaugh said. "This is according to the nation's report card."
Alumbaugh said that problem can have startling ramifications.
"These kids continuously fall through the cracks," Ashley Boles said. Boles worked with juvenile offenders for 16 years. He and his wife, Kassie, also have two children who struggle with reading and processing issues.
"We have found from personal experience, if we didn't go outside of the school district, and put our daughters through private tutoring, they're not going to learn how to read," Kassie said. "It's just the way the system is set up now."
Kassie Boles is part of a group that has had to go outside to get the instruction they feel isn't offered in school. The Apple Group for Dyslexia is one resource. Julie Neilson took her son out of Jonesboro Public Schools and learned methods to teach him at home.
"The schools are interested in the 'bubble kids,' the ones they can move along quickly," Neilson said. "The ones that can make the good grades. All others just kind of get left behind."
Meanwhile, time is ticking.
"Children are waiting to read," Alumbaugh said.
"Money is tight everywhere. I get that," Beeson said. "But, I just want to make sure that my children that I've worked with are going to be ok."
"No child will go lacking in services," Superintendent Dunivan said.
"Nettleton has been a star in the crown for dyslexia," Alumbaugh said. "But, I'm curious how I will be talking about Nettleton this time next year."
Copyright 2016 KAIT. All rights reserved.