More special ed staff would cost $1 million
Caseloads are ‘higher than what I’m comfortable with,’ Bailey says
It would cost an estimated $1 million to fund up to 20 more special education staff positions potentially needed at St. Mary’s public schools, according to the school system’s superintendent.
Prior to voting on this school year’s special education staff plan, St. Mary’s school board members agreed at a meeting on Wednesday that more teachers and other staff could be needed to accommodate the growing number of students who require those services.
An average of one special education resource teacher is available for every 200 general education elementary students, Susan Fowler, public schools’ director of special education said at the board meeting. At the middle school level, the average is one resource teacher to 150 general education students, and back up to one teacher per 200 general education students at the high schools, she continued.
Fowler said Thursday the official count of students needing special education and the intensity of their instruction has yet to be determined. She said school staff should have that information by early October as budget work begins for fiscal year 2019, adding that “it’s unpredictable” to determine how many more special education staff are needed at this point.
Board member Rita Weaver asked why the ratio of students to teachers at the high schools isn’t lower because “the students are getting ready to graduate.”
As students progress to high school, “the ratio works out,” Fowler said.
School staff have recognized
supporting special education needs at the middle school level is “its own little animal that required wrangling,” Fowler continued.
“It would be great to lower [the ratio] for all of them,” she said.
Using 2016-2017 school year data, Fowler said each special education teacher has an average caseload of 18 students at the elementary level, and 15 students at the secondar y school. Many teachers have a lower caseload, and the director said she hasn’t had the chance to calculate the averages for this year yet because students are still getting settled into programs.
Occupational and physical therapists have average caseloads ranging from 30 to 50 students, Fowler said. Special education regional staf fing allows for one teacher and one paraeduator for every nine students for programs such as the Learning Adjustment Program, also known as LAP, the Supporting Academics and Independent Living program, or SAIL, and a teacher and paraeducator for every five student in the Community Promoting Academic and Social Success program, or COMPASS, she said.
School board chair Karin Bailey said “the caseload [average] is higher than what I’m comfortable with.” She said as more students are identified as having special education needs, staff would “have to consider the needs of other students” as well.
“Thank you for preaching to the choir,” Fowler said to Bailey.
Superintendent Scott Smith said asking for an increase in special education staff funding would be supported by the school board. Ongoing discussion would need to occur during next year’s budget process to accommodate the estimated $1 million it would take to bring in “five, 10, 15, 20” more special education teachers, he said.
Th e average caseload in St. Mary’s County isn’t “beyond national averages,” the superintendent said.
“We’re not at a crisis level,” Smith continued. “We’re giving the best service we can provide with the dollars that we have.”
Board member Cathy Allen said the special education population is growing due to the “greater number of students being identified [and the schools’] ability to support them.”
Fowler said about 10 percent of the more than 18,000 students in St. Mary’s public schools require some kind of special education service.
Special education staff are responsible for assess- ing if students require special education pathways and to communicate with families, Fowler said. Some paraeducators may take on more routine duties such as filling out paperwork and meeting with families after on-thejob training, she said.
According to fiscal 2018 budget documents, about $18.9 million in state and local funding has been budgeted for special education, with $15.7 million going to salaries and wages, $899,576 going to contracted services such as occupational and physical therapists, and $70,321 for supplies and materials. Of the approximate 287 special education staff, about 144 are teachers and 103 are paraeducators.
Another 54 positions are funded through $5 million in grants. About $2.1 million is designated for sending students to private school and out-of-county placements.