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Intermediate units evolve as school district needs change

Emily Balser
| Saturday, April 8, 2017, 12:01 a.m.

When the Kiski Area School District decided last month to stop using the Westmoreland County Intermediate Unit for aides for special needs students it upset many parents.

But intermediate unit officials say they are offering fewer special education services as the role of intermediate units in education evolves.

“Over the last 10 years, that has become less and less of a business for us to provide,” said Jason Conway, executive director of the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit.

“We still offer it, but we're not hanging our hat on that.”

When state special education funds stopped flowing exclusively to the 29 intermediate units statewide and instead started going directly to individual districts in the early 1990s, intermediate units had to come up with other ways to serve districts, said Tom Gluck, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units.

Now, districts can choose to contract with a private company that can provide those special education services, which is what Kiski Area did last month.

The district cited cost savings as one of the reasons for switching. School officials said the move to a private company from the intermediate unit will save the school district $87,000 over the next three school years.

Private companies can be cheaper because they don't have to pay the teacher's health care or retirement costs like the intermediate unit would, Conway said.

“IUs really had to sort of change the way they operated and do business,” Gluck said. “One of the results of that has been this huge diversification of services that IUs now offer to their districts.”

Those services include everything from professional development for teachers to early intervention programs for students who need extra learning support before entering kindergarten.

“Professional development really has emerged as a primary area where districts look to their IUs to create high-quality training that's affordable,” Gluck said.

Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said it provides about 130 programs that are available to districts to buy. Those include membership in consortiums that get districts lower rates for energy and fuel costs, purchasing English as a second language services and joining its center for creativity.

All school districts pay into their intermediate units each year to have access to its core services. They can buy additional programs, like special education services, if they need them.

Kiski Area will use Westmoreland Intermediate Unit next school year for other services. Its contribution will come to about $24,200. That's a decrease of nearly $900 from this school year.

“I think our challenges are always that we need to be able to provide services that the districts need,” Hippert said, “and, like a business, we have to be able to predict what those services are and not be overstaffed and not be understaffed.”

Conway said two areas of education where he sees intermediate services growing are online learning opportunities and mental health services for students.

“That's definitely something that is up and coming,” Conway said.

State relies on IUs to spread message

Nicole Reigelman, Department of Education spokeswoman, said intermediate units are important partners to the department.

“In addition to offering critical services to students and schools, the 29 IUs help the department share state-level information with local districts,” she said. “And they often serve as a vital sounding board about the policies the department is developing by providing valuable feedback on the potential impacts on education communities around the state.”

Gluck said intermediate units are a regional hub not only for districts, but also communities. Many offer community centers and in-home visits for families.

“I think people would be surprised about the important role that IUs play,” Gluck said. “The best way to help people understand what an IU is or does is imagine what it would be like if it went away tomorrow.”

Emily Balser is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4680 or emilybalser@tribweb.com.

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