Possible changes to Upshur County Schools’ PALS program can’t be disclosed due to legal concerns

TENNERTON – The president of the Upshur County Board of Education told board members they should not discuss pending changes to the Personalized Alternative Learning Settings program, which includes the transitional school and alternative school.

At its Tuesday, April 11 meeting, Dr. Tammy Samples said she’d been advised by legal counsel that because the program changes involve personnel, they should not be discussed in open session.

An agenda item labeled ‘PALS Discussion – Update on the PALS program based on WVDE review’ appeared on the April 11 agenda after board member Roy Wager asked that the board discuss rumored reconfigurations of the PALS program during the board’s March 28 meeting.

Wager said Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Harrison had subsequently told him the West Virginia Department of Education had evaluated the PALS program and that specific information about that review would be available by the board meeting.

However, when the item came up, Samples made a motion to table it due to legal advice, saying the issue involved personnel.

“I thought we were going to get a report tonight,” Wager said. “I have had a lot of people concerned, as was this group that was here tonight [for the public comments section of the BOE meeting] about moving the transitional school, about not having an alternative school. That decision has to be made at some point.”

“The high school is already making plans to move the transitional school here (to Buckhannon-Upshur High School),” he continued.

According to a previous My Buckhannon story from August 2019, at least one PALS site is located in the Stockert Youth & Community Center.

“I do not know about the alternative school,” Wager said. “So, we are going to wait until the end of the school year to decide this when the high school is already planning for next year? They already have their scheduling, I think, for next year. You don’t want to discuss that now?”

“It has already been done … but it can’t come to us yet,” Samples responded. “The personnel issues have already been done, and [then] it comes to us. We are to know nothing about it prior to that.”

Wager said he was not talking about individual PALS instructors but the program itself.

“I am concerned about the program; the transitional school started years ago,” Wager said. “Mrs. [Jodie] Akers, who was here tonight, was a big part of that because of what these kids said — they could not make it at the high school.”

“They were having attendance issues; they were having academic issues,” he continued. “We moved them to the transitional [program] so that all of the overwhelming stuff at the high school was addressed. And the other reason we did it was because of dropouts. We had a lot of kids dropping out.”

During the delegations/public comment portion of the meeting, about nine Upshur County Schools students who indicated they were enrolled in the PALS program addressed the board. The students said that being a part of the PALS program had a positive effect on their schooling and their lives – and many shared that this program helped to prevent them from dropping out of school.

“I do not think it is appropriate because it relates to personnel,” Samples replied. “It is my job as the president to keep us out of trouble.”

Wager asked when personnel season would end, and Harrison said information would be provided at the next regular board meeting on April 25.

“They can ask for hearings at that time,” Harrison said. “We will also be bringing you a probationary list and a continuing list for your approval.”

Interim assistant superintendent Melinda Stewart did provide an update on what the West Virginia Department of Education shared with her as part of a general review into the PALS program and special education services as a whole. She said WVDE officials highlighted some areas of concern, including documentation issues and the need for administrators to visit sites more frequently.

In addition, Stewart said one problem involved general education teachers “not necessarily” keeping a record of accommodations as they’re provided to special education students.

“At every site, it was documented that those sites need to be visited by administration more,” Stewart said. “We have had an issue at most of our sites with goals and plans that are not being put into place for students, so if we have a student who is going to a PALS program, it’s not being determined beforehand what their goals are or what do they have to achieve in order to be able to transition out of there.”

Stewart said there was a general lack of data to support decision-making.

“We are having a lot of ‘I think, I feel’ conversations — ‘I think this would be a good idea’ conversations and ‘I think this would be the best placement’ conversations — instead of actually having data to support that,” Stewart said. “That is one of the things that he talked a lot about.”

Stewart said there are also a number of students placed on shortened days who do not have a doctor’s prescription or note in their file, which she said is a “huge flag.”

“As you can see with many of the areas of concern, most of those are related to special education students, but [there are also] things like not having behavior plans. Those sorts of things are issues, especially if students are placed in those programs for behavioral concerns.”

Stewart shared the WVDE’s general recommendations for the PALS program as well as the special education system in Upshur County.

“Many of the sites had the services page of an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or the services page of a 504 [Plan] but did not have the entire document, so there was nothing for our teachers to be able to look at, read and know what exactly these students are struggling with and where they presently are,” she said.

Stewart said many of the Personalized Education Plans, or PEP plans, aren’t filed on site.

“The question that I was asked was, ‘If we don’t know what the PEP says, how do we know what courses we’re assigning them in order to get them to graduate?’”

Following Stewart’s report, Samples said she wanted the meeting minutes to note her concerns.

“I did speak to counsel and the School Board Association, and upon their guidance, I was cautioned to be very careful discussing this,” Samples said. “So, I was not trying to silence Mr. Wager; I was trying to protect the board as is my job as President. I would like the minutes to reflect that. It has nothing to do with these programs – nothing whatsoever.”

My Buckhannon recently reached out to Harrison and Stewart to ask about PALS and some of the changes that are rumored to be pending.

Stewart replied, saying the program supplies “a variety of settings for students in grades K-12” and that students may be referred to the PALS for services related to behavior, attendance, academics, social-emotional needs “or any reason that might help a child reset.”

Stewart wrote that the PALS settings provide “an opportunity for students to learn the skills they need to take back to their regular school setting and achieve feelings of success.”

In the email, Stewart said she “[could not] speak to specific changes to PALS as they relate to personnel,” but the school system is excited about a collaboration with Community Care of West Virginia.

She wrote, “This partnership (with Community Care of WV) in regard to PALS will provide beneficial resources to staff, students and families.”

The next regular meeting of the Upshur County Board of Education is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 25, at Buckhannon-Upshur High School auditorium. There is a budget workshop scheduled for 7:30 a.m. April 18 at the Upshur County Board of Education Office.

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