Superintendent calls for adding special education teachers even as funding sources change

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

The special education department of Harrisonburg City Public Schools is about to see changes in the way it’s funded, with one source of money essentially being halved, and a new source kickstarting a process to improve services.

The Harrisonburg school district is one of seven area divisions that, together, apply for special education funding from the state as part of the Shenandoah Valley Regional Program for Special Education. 

A restructuring of how Virginia funds regional special education programs could mean the loss of over $1.4 million in funding annually. Superintendent Michael Richards announced this change in his presentation of the proposed 2020-2021 budget in Tuesday evening’s school board meeting.

Sandi Thorpe, director of special programs, told The Citizen after the meeting that each division can still apply for some funds, but it’s become harder to access.

Previously, schools in the regional program could apply for funding for any students in one of five disability categories. Now, Thorpe said, those students must also spend 85% of their time receiving special services. Also changing is what the funding can be used for.

“It is supposed to be for your hardest-to-serve students, but the only money you can now ask for reimbursement is direct services. So I can ask for some teacher pay, some assistants’ pay,” Thorpe said. Previously, they have been eligible for funding for professional development for staff, or students’ assistive equipment, like hearing devices or special seating. Funds for those items “now have to be pulled from a local budget,” Thorpe said.

This year, 74 students’ needs were eligible for funding through the regional program. Next year, Thorpe said she expects only half of them will be.

Still, Richards’s proposed budget includes adding eight special education teacher and teacher assistant positions to the division, which Thorpe said would help meet scheduling needs.

“I think Dr. Richards is working really hard to keep special education in the light,” Thorpe said. “It’s not necessarily more people we need to do the job, but we need the right people to do the job.”

VCU Grant

While the restructuring of the Valley Regional program’s money might affect Harrisonburg, a new funding opportunity will come from the Autism Center for Excellence at Virginia Commonwealth University. Thorpe and her team won a grant for a three-year project similar to a strategic planning process.

“We really wanted to look at, strategically, how do we plan for these kids from [age] three on through to make sure, each year, we’re not just throwing something new at them,” Thorpe told The Citizen. The grant provides the services of two representatives from the autism center to meet regularly with school staff, faculty, students and parents “in order to make sustained changes,” Thorpe said.

“We do great work in the area of autism education,” Richards said during a presentation on the grant during Tuesday’s meeting. “But we can always do better.”

As The Citizen reported in August, some parents of children with intellectual disabilities choose to homeschool their children, especially once they reach high school. And while Thorpe acknowledged that parents need to make individual choices for their children, she thinks the city schools can educate most special needs children.

“We work really hard to meet the needs of students. I’m not seeing a mass exodus from public schools of students with autism,” Thorpe said.

In their grant application, Thorpe said her team identified strengths within their department, such as: 

  • a variety of classroom environments;
  • early intervention starting at age 3 or 4;
  • two staff members who are board-certified behavior analysts; 
  • older students mentoring younger students;
  • and “inclusion activities” accessible to all students in a school.

Weaknesses identified include: 

  • trouble retaining staff;
  • an increase in the number of special education students due to increased overall enrollment;
  • transitioning students between elementary, middle and high school;
  • and scheduling individual students to access both special and general education classes as needed.

That last one is especially difficult.

“It’s all based on their education plan, their individual plan, so … you could have 10 kids all running different schedules,” Thorpe said. And those have to be collated with “the master schedules of the schools because we want them in with their grade-level peers.”

Salary raises in proposed budget

The school board will fine-tune the budget in its work session March 17, which will be at 5:30 p.m. in the council chambers so it can be televised “in the interest of transparency,” Richards said. 

The board is expected to vote on the budget at the end of that meeting.

With those additional special education positions, the proposed budget includes a total of 37.75 full-time equivalent personnel additions. Some of those, Richards said, are to “front-load” the impending staffing needs of the new high school, which is set to open in the fall of 2022.

“Of course, personnel is the most expensive thing that school divisions have,” Richards said. Instruction accounts for 77% of the proposed budget, which includes a 3% salary increase for all staff and a 7.5% salary increase for school nutrition assistants.

Tuesday’s meeting included a public hearing on the budget following Richards’s presentation. Ivan Christo, an instructional assistant at Spotswood Elementary, proposed a base salary of $35,000 for instructional assistants to meet local costs of living. He said his base salary is about $18,000 — and that’s with a master’s degree and a Virginia teacher’s license. He said that figure is lower for his colleagues without those credentials.

Also at the meeting: 

  • Richards said in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus, the school division has held a meeting with all principals and nurses to “dust off our emergency planning so we’re ready, just in case.” The CDC currently reports no cases of COVID-19 in Virginia.
  • Three students in the high school Fine Arts Academy presented their senior capstone project: to build an outdoor stage at Keister Elementary School. The stage will be available to students during the day and community events after school hours. A movement-based piece about climate change is planned for an unveiling event on May 8.
  • Students from the Governor’s STEM Academy at the high school presented their work on watershed monitoring sensors. They won a $15,000 grant from Samsung to build sensors that monitor stream water quality and continuously upload data to the internet, where it can be accessed by a cell phone. The students intend to deploy these sensors in various locations around Harrisonburg.

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