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Special- ed needs pressing Stafford
Stafford School Board must rethink priorities as schools' special-ed populations increase.

Date published: 1/28/2013

BY AMY FLOWERS UMBLE

Stafford County school officials want to give employees raises and reduce classroom sizes.

But first, they will have to address their burgeoning special-education population. In the past year, Stafford County public schools received 133 new students with disabilities, bringing the total to 2,559.

Many of these students have autism, health concerns or emotional disabilities, said Sue Clark, executive director of student services.

And many have severe needs that require self-contained classrooms. State regulations mandate that such classes include no more than eight students.

Nearly every self-contained classroom in Stafford is at capacity, Clark said. So the county needs to hire 15 more special-education teachers to accommodate the new students.

The county now has about 250 special-education teachers.

For the past few years, the schools saw more special-education students but didn't add positions because of budget constraints.

"When you do that long enough, it impacts education," Clark said. "It becomes a point of no return."

And in early budget discussions, the Stafford School Board members have learned that it will cost about $2 million to hire teachers and paraprofessionals for the special-education classes.

Stafford County contributes about $27 million toward the school division's $39 million special-education budget, with the state and federal governments providing the rest.

The School Board members set their two biggest budget priorities as boosting teacher pay and adding positions to the school division.

In the past few years, school officials have not been able to meet their budget priorities and have instead been forced to pick the least painful cuts.

Tuesday night, Superintendent Randy Bridges presented several options for giving employees raises. The most expensive option for raises carries a $9.2 million price tag and would give employees a step increase and a small cost-of-living adjustment, in addition to meeting the increased retirement system costs.

As always, the school officials are trying to craft a budget without fully knowing how much money they will have next year. The Board of Supervisors and the General Assembly will make decisions in the next few months that could dramatically impact the school budget.

But the School Board members are sure of one thing: Adding the special-education positions won't be optional.

"We have no choice but to meet those needs," said board member Patricia Healy.

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973
Email: aumble@freelancestar.com