PINE ISLAND -- After more than 30 years, Pine Island Public Schools is ending its relationship with the Zumbro Education District, which provides special-needs services that smaller school districts might not be able to provide on their own.

Superintendent Tammy Champa said district officials made the decision late last year.

Before the pandemic, the district had been looking at its own needs and discussing how it might be able to balance those with ZED's priorities. Then 2020 hit, and Pine Island had to make a decision about what direction it wanted to go.

“Really, as a district, we paused everything just not knowing what the future would hold,” Champa said about the pandemic. “ZED wanted to continue with commitments from all the districts, and Pine Island just wasn’t there. And we just really wanted to make sure our taxpayers were first and foremost.”

The school district will continue to be eligible for services from ZED until the summer of 2022. Until then, it’s working to establish its own services, preparing for a transition that not many schools its size have done before.

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This year, the district hired a staff member who can help students with credit recovery. Pine Island High School Principal Mitch Schiltz said the choice to hire that teacher was two-fold. The district wanted to help students who may have lost academic ground during the pandemic, but it was also a way to begin building the groundwork for when Pine Island will be on its own without ZED.

That’s just one of the ways Pine Island is getting ready for the transition. For some programs, it may hire new staff. For others, it may contract for services. As much as possible, Champa said administrators are trying to be efficient with their choices. For example, one of the district's special education teachers is also qualified to work with visually impaired students.

Jill Petersen is the director of student support services for Pine Island Public Schools and is among those helping the district transition out of its relationship with ZED. She’s been able to speak with a couple other districts who have similar set-ups, but most smaller districts throughout greater Minnesota are either part of a co-op or an education district similar to ZED.

The fact that there are few other districts doing what Pine Island has done provides both challenges and opportunities.

“It’s always nice to be able to use what other people have done, but at the same time it allows us to be creative in how we’re approaching what we want to do in Pine Island,” Petersen said.

Jesse Hoeppner, a teacher with Pine Island High School's Alternative Learning Program, talks with a student during class Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pine Island. The Alternative Learning Program, which started this year, will help the school in their transition out of the Zumbro Education District. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Jesse Hoeppner, a teacher with Pine Island High School's Alternative Learning Program, talks with a student during class Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pine Island. The Alternative Learning Program, which started this year, will help the school in their transition out of the Zumbro Education District. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Up to this point, Pine Island had been one of seven member districts of ZED. The others are Stewartville, Kasson-Mantorville, Byron, Blooming Prairie, Hayfield and Triton. ZED has programs for the hard of hearing and the visually impaired; it offers behavioral analysis, occupational therapy, and speech therapy, among other services.

ZED is in the process of building a new facility just north of Kasson-Mantorville High School.

Champa said Pine Island is in a different position than it was when it first started its relationship with ZED in the late 1980s. It was smaller at the time. Today, its growth makes venturing out from ZED realistic.

With the construction of ZED’s new facility, member districts will have had to contribute more on an annual basis. Pine Island’s commitment would have increased by $158,000 a year.

Champa said she’s not yet able to say what Pine Island will end up spending by independently providing the services it got from ZED.

The district is determined to keep the same quality of education that Pine Island families received through ZED, she said. Pine Island will be have an information session for parents and families to answer questions about the transition.

“We are committed to ensuring our families are not missing anything as we transition,” Champa said. “It is really our commitment to our families to make sure that we provide the same level of services that they experienced when we were with ZED.”