A student with special education needs is denied services by the Whitefish Bay School District. Administration says it has no choice.

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This article was published on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Alec Johnson on March 16, 2021.

A mom is accusing the Whitefish Bay School District of discriminating against racial minorities because it has denied her daughter special education services. 

But the school district says in cases like this, its hands can be tied under its Chapter 220 agreement with Milwaukee Public Schools. 

The Wisconsin Chapter 220 Interdistrict Transfer Program was established in 1976 to promote racial integration of Milwaukee and its surrounding suburban school districts. It originated from a lawsuit settlement that same year.

Kiarra Reid, whose daughter attended Whitefish Bay schools through the Chapter 220 program, said the district declined to provide help for her daughter’s dyslexia. 

Although it may appear similar to open enrollment, the Chapter 220 program operates under different requirements, including special education responsibility, said Chris Bucher, communications specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Services are subject to the transfer agreements between MPS and suburban school districts.

Under the agreement between MPS and Whitefish Bay Schools, MPS has the option to either pay for those services to be provided in the host district or to provide the services itself.

Students identified with special education needs are eligible to participate in the 220 program on the same basis as non-special education needs students, noted Whitefish Bay Schools Superintendent John Thomsen. There are exceptions, however. For example, students may need to return to their home district if the host district doesn’t have an appropriate program, or if the amount of financial assistance from the home district isn’t enough to cover the cost of educating the student in the host district. 

“In cases where the total amount of financial assistance is less that the cost of educating the student, Whitefish Bay has provided a cost estimate to MPS pursuant to the Interdistrict Agreement and allowed MPS to make a decision on whether they are willing to cover the cost associated with that child,” Thomsen said.

Thomsen said the district would not comment on specific student/family matters out of respect for the privacy rights of the family. 

Reid said her family received a letter saying they would have to leave the district if they wanted to get services for their daughter. She also said that if the family wanted to stay in the district they would have to sign off saying her daughter would not receive any services. Reid, who is Black, said she knows of other Chapter 220 families, who are all minorities, who have also received no assistance.

“We feel helpless as a family. We feel like we were just thrown to the wayside,” Reid said during the public comment session of the Whitefish Bay School Board’s Feb. 24 meeting.

In some recent cases, Thomsen said MPS has not been willing to cover the additional costs and has offered to provide services itself.

“They don’t care about their minority students. They say they do but really they don’t. The administration doesn’t. Certain teachers do, but you have teachers you can tell that don’t,” Reid added about the Whitefish Bay School District in a later interview March 5.

Thomsen said the Chapter 220 agreement is approved by the school board annually, typically at the board’s regular meeting in May.

Reid said that her daughter and one of her sons, twins who are in fourth grade, have left the district, and her oldest son is about to leave the district. She said in a phone interview March 5 that her son wanted to leave because he didn’t like how the district treated minority students, including his sister. 

Reid said she wants to help other Chapter 220 parents with children in the district who are scared to speak up or are told to leave.

“When you’re considering all this, consider the families and the faces of the kids who are being affected by this and are told to leave because of a disability they had that we had no knowledge of when my baby first started school (in) K4 there. Again, just consider it is real families behind this, and we had to scramble to find another school for my twins, with no help or assistance from the district at all,” Reid said during the Feb. 24 meeting

Promoting equity

One prominent local community group, Bay Bridge, has pushed for a better resolution of the issue.

“Our community deserves to know the details of how these decisions are made and who is making them and how many families have been affected and continue to be affected by not only this issue, but similar potentially discriminatory practices with technology and transportation,” the group said in a statement shared by co-founder Anne O’Connor.

The statement added that Bay Bridge, a community group addressing racial inequality in Whitefish Bay, has reached out to the district again and intends to publicly raise the request at the Whitefish Bay School Board’s March 17 meeting.

Thomsen said the district is continuing its work and commitment around equity and excellence. He also said the Whitefish Bay School Board recently renewed its commitment to equity, to “take strategic steps to advance equity for all. We look forward to continuing to partnering with our students and families as we work to make the district an exceptional place to learn.”

What is Chapter 220?

Since 1995, MPS has entered into individual Chapter 220 contracts with several suburban districts. A school district with less than 30% minority population qualifies for state aid for minority students transferring in from a district with 30% or more of a minority population. The contract also works the opposite direction, allowing suburban students to attend school in Milwaukee. 

The program is being phased out under provisions of 2015 Act 55, the 2015-17 biennial budget. Students who were enrolled in the program at the time may continue until graduation, but no new students may participate in the program. 

The program is funded with state aid, and the state aid for each pupil transferred into a district is equal to the district’s regular education students’ actual cost.

Contact Alec Johnson at (262) 875-9469 or alec.johnson@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlecJohnson12.