Special education director initiates strategic plan efforts

When Alison Dollar began work as the new director of the Souris Valley Special Services Unit last July, she noticed that personnel tend to respond to problems as they arise.

Outgoing director Ralph Charley and his experienced staff had left her an excellent foundation, but Dollar still saw the need for a guiding plan for the special services unit that would establish what the special services unit wants to accomplish and guide future operation.

It’s with “the idea of becoming pro-active instead of reactive” that Dollar arranged for the North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities at Minot State University to collaborate with her agency in developing a strategic plan. NDCPD will host a series of meetings, running from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. tonight at the Minot Public Schools Building, 215-2nd St. SE, to gather community input on the future topics and direction of special education services in the area. Teachers, parents, administrators, community members and all people interested in special education services are invited to attend.

Other upcoming meetings are scheduled. A meeting is tentatively scheduled for March 25 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. at the Wilton Public Schools; March 27 from 1:30 to 3 p.m. at the Parshall High School biology lab and from April 3 from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Sawyer Public School library.

“This gives our staff a great opportunity to hear from the public and then plan our services accordingly,” said Dollar. “We want to hear about what we are doing well and where we can direct our efforts to improve.”

Community members will be provided with a brief overview of the current operations of the Souris Valley Special Services. The public will then be led through a process of input and comment, with a summary prioritization of future topics and operations.

The session will be facilitated by Brent Askvig, executive director of the NDCPD.

Dollar, who formerly worked for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, and Askvig both started their careers as special education teachers in public schools, which they said gives them more credibility when they talk with parents and students, since they know first hand what it is like to work with kids in a special education classroom.

Dollar also is a former college classmate of Askvig’s and the two once worked together at NDCPD.

Dollar said NDCPD is coordinating the efforts because she thinks she will get more honest feedback if an outside agency is running the meetings.

The feedback gathered during the meetings will be analyzed and used to create a strategic plan that will help guide the future direction at Souris Valley Special Services.

A strategic plan can help identify what changes would work best for the special services unit, which works with 19 school districts to provide services to 1,752 students with disabilities in preschool through grade 12. Serving that population can be difficult at a time when the number of students with disabilities is on the increase and the federal government is also experiencing financial challenges. The number of students who require services can fluctuate in northwest North Dakota because the population is more transient. That can make it harder for school districts to do advanced planning for the needs of students with special needs, some of whom may not be there from one year to the next.

Dollar said the strategic planning process will take about two to three years. It will identify what the Souris Valley Special Services unit hopes to accomplish and also identify how to use the plan to respond to problems that might arise. For instance, federal regulations require that children be evaluated for a disability within 60 days once their parents have requested testing. If kids aren’t being evaluated quickly enough for disabilities in a particular area, Souris Valley Special Services might decide to provide additional in-service training or decide that additional services are needed.

Askvig said the strategic planning process was also useful for NDCPD.

“Strategic planning offers programs and agencies a chance to look at community needs and then plan for the future,” he said. “It is important for everyone to weigh in on the future of the program and offer suggestions for what is important for the children’s future.”

Dollar said such an effort is particularly important at a time when federal sequestration means Souris Valley Special Services, along with other agencies, could experience at least a 5 percent cut in funding.

“Five percent is huge,” she said.

Askvig said many agencies already are dealing with flat funding that has not been adjusted for increases in cost of living expenses or price increases, so a 5 percent cut is likely to have a significant impact.

Dollar said she hopes to avoid job cuts or cutting services to schools. Instead, she is looking at ways to operate more efficiently and do things better. For example, she said school psychologists might be asked to take on additional duties and other personnel might stop doing one task and begin doing another, depending on what is considered necessary.

For more information about the community meeting, or to request accommodations, contact Askvig at least one week in advance at 858-3580. Questions about Souris Valley Special Services can be directed to Dollar at 857-4407.

Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or Managing Editor Kent Olson at 857-1939. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to mdnews@minotdailynews.com.