Disgrunted parent questions school plan

| 22 Feb 2012 | 08:14

Will school be ready in time? Why change something that works?, By Tom Hoffman WANTAGE n Cheryl Novak has been a foster parent for 36 years. She’s helped raise more than 100 children, nearly all of whom are handicapped. Each one of them has attended the Sussex-Wantage Regional School District, including her foster son Teddy, an 11-year-old who is wheelchair-bound, suffers from chronic kidney failure and uses a permanent feeding tube. Novak is also the foster mother of a 10-year-old boy in the same class whom she can’t name due to confidentiality requirements. The 10-year-old has cerebral palsy and is autistic. Historically, Novak’s kids have attended a class for handicapped children at the Lawrence School in Wantage until they are old enough to attend High Point Regional High School. But now, due to a decision by the school district, Novak’s two boys and four other handicapped children who are middle school age are being transferred to a new handicapped class that’s being created at the Sussex Middle School beginning in September. For her part, Novak is outraged. There are several issues behind Novak’s fury. For starters, the handicapped classroom at the Lawrence School has its own bathroom that is sanitized by an in-classroom nurse or teacher’s aide each time it’s used by one of the students, some of whom are developmentally disabled and incontinent. By contrast, the Sussex Middle School currently doesn’t have a dedicated bathroom for handicapped students, plus it lacks adequate wheelchair-accessible walkways throughout the building and grounds, she adds. Promise to prepare Novak and the parents of other handicapped children who currently attend the Lawrence School were told at a meeting on March 25 with Nanci Valente, the school district’s director of special services, that the district would complete all of the necessary construction to support a handicapped class at the Sussex Middle School before September. This includes the creation of an in-classroom handicapped bathroom and a wheelchair-accessible walkway from the classroom to the playground. Novak said she finds this hard to believe since the district still doesn’t have an approved budget for the 2009/2010 school year. “I’m sorry, but the (school) board is just not going to spend the money on this,” said Novak. “They downed the budget and they’re not going to approve payment for these things.” When contacted by The Advertiser-News with a set of questions via e-mail, Valente said that she “cannot discuss the issues” until the district receives final confirmation from the State Department of Education regarding the relocation. A meeting may be scheduled for Monday, April 6. After Novak pleaded her case before the S-W Board of Education at its March 19 meeting, several members of the board said they empathized with her concerns but were bound by state regulations to transfer the handicapped children to a school with children their own age. “Our hands are tied,” said Thomas Card, president of the school board. Rules are rules It’s still unclear why the school district is enforcing the transfer of these students now. Richard Vespucci, a public affairs officer at the New Jersey Department of Education in Trenton, responded via e-mail that the Sussex-Wantage school district “is on its own discussing whether it should change the location of its K-8 special education class.” However, he added that the federal special education law IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act), plus state special education laws and regulations “presume that students are educated with their age appropriate peers. Since we believe that this is what the laws and regulations presume, we recommend that the district move the students into the middle school building.” Vespucci added that there are state funds available to underwrite the costs for the types of construction projects needed to support a handicapped class at the Sussex Middle School. A call by The Advertiser-News to Zola Mills, Sussex County Supervisor of Child Study, was not returned by deadline.