BETHLEHEM—The Bethlehem Central School District’s special education and student services (SESS) department is requesting additional funds to account for an increased number of students utilizing its services.
It has been several years since the department has received an increase in funding, said director of the department, Kathy Johnston, and the time has come for that to change.
“In the five years since I’ve held this position, we’ve lost 47 staff people,” Johnston told the School Board during its Wednesday, March 16, meeting. “Ten of those were special education teachers; 29 [were] aides to students with disabilities; and then we had the loss of a psychologist, a social worker and two speech pathologists.”
Although she understands staff reductions had to occur because of financial difficulties faced by the district, “We are really at a point where we need to make some requests,“ said Johnston.
And, with the department seeing an uptick in population served in recent years, the funds could not come soon enough.
This year, 61 more students than last year receive SESS department services. The department serves a total 772 students—15 percent of the total student population—who have disabilities across a range of disorders affecting their ability to learn and attention spans.
In Bethlehem, policy promotes normal classroom inclusion for students when it is deemed appropriate, so that number includes funds for contained classrooms, learning assisted by student aides among other services. While the highest rates of service occur at the elementary level, both Bethlehem Central High School and Bethlehem Central Middle School saw an increase of 10 students this year who utilized the services of the SESS department.
Another reason for the uptick in students served: the district has seen an influx of students with mental health issues that Johnston said is in line with nearby school districts.
“We’ve had a significant amount of need for students primarily with mental health issues to be placed in BOCES [New York State’s shared services, which among its many programs include special education classes] and we’ve tried to move things, but in order to service students for next year, we would need an additional $256,000,” said Johnston.
Johnston’s further requests for funding would address increased student need by creating one additional full-time teacher position at the elementary level, with two aides to go along; and a .6 full-time equivalent SESS teacher plus a part-time aide at Bethlehem Central Middle School.
A full-time teaching position and two part-time aides at the high school were also requested for the district’s intensive skills class—a class where learning is individually-oriented and, in many instances, numerous learning styles are being taught at once.
The program began at Elsmere Elementary School in 2007. A second class was added the following year; then in 2012, the program expanded into the middle school. Now, in September, those middle school students will be ready to move up to the high school.
“We’ve really done what I think is a phenomenal job in servicing those students,” said Johnston.
Finally, the department requested that the budget include an increase in sub rate for nurses from $17.50 to $20.00 because finding replacements has been difficult at the current wage.
Many department budget presentations made in recent weeks (including this presentation by the SESS department) have revealed departments still in need of funds that have been reduced since the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) of 2009, which greatly reduced state funding to schools.
While department budget requests are made every year as part of the School Board budget process, this year, state funding is larger than in previous years (in efforts to move toward eliminating the GEA). As a result, the board will actually be able to include some funding requests into the district’s 2016-17 budget.
The School Board will discuss all department fund proposals, including the SESS department’s, during its next meeting Tuesday, April 13.