CSD weighs its options for special education

Posted by Decaturish.com January 22, 2015
The City Schools of Decatur Board of Education holds its first regular meeting in its new board room at the Beacon Municipal Center. File Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

The City Schools of Decatur Board of Education holds its first regular meeting in its new board room at the Beacon Municipal Center. File Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

By Jill Nolin, Contributor

The City Schools of Decatur will need an additional $1.5 million to accommodate the expected growth within its special education program.

The department’s complex needs, and the community’s intense desire for CSD to address those needs, will require school leaders to make some tough budget decisions this year.

That’s why the School Board was briefed early in the process, Superintendent Phyllis Edwards said. The board heard a presentation last week, but the budget won’t be up for a vote until June.

Board member Annie Caiola said the value special-needs students add to the community goes beyond a dollar amount, but the board has an obligation to weigh the costs with “all the other competing needs.”

“It would have to be a very dark day for the financial welfare of the City Schools of Decatur for me to support contracting these services out,” Caiola said at the board meeting.

“It’s such an integral part to our community and to the families in our community. I’m not saying that day will never come, but it would have to a very dark day and I don’t think that we’re at that point yet with our financial situation,” she added.

The district currently spends $5.7 million on student support, but more is needed to keep pace with the district’s growth and maintain the quality of the program, said Heidi Whatley, CSD’s director of exceptional student services.

Whatley laid out her department’s needs, which include purchasing special equipment and hiring specialized personnel, such as a speech therapist and a psychologist. Next year, Whatley is proposing the district increase staffing and add two classes for students with intellectual disabilities.

Currently, students age out of the program for profound multiple disabilities after the third grade. Developing a K-12 program would add diversity to the district and reduce CSD’s need to contract out services, Whatley said. For now, these students are sent to systems with established programs.

“There’s a huge community interest in keeping all kids in Decatur,” Whatley told the board.

Whatley was out of the office at a conference this week and unable to respond to follow-up questions about her presentation to the board, according to CSD spokeswoman Courtney Burnett.

“My big message to y’all is we have to make a lot of really hard decisions, and I want you to understand how complicated that is,” Whatley said to the board during its regular meeting last week. “And as we grow, we’ve got to keep up all of these services or we have to provide different levels of service than we’ve been providing. Those are the kinds of things we need to figure out.”

CSD is already feeling the growing pains. Additional teachers and paraprofessionals were hired this year when more students with individualized education programs enrolled than anticipated.

Six parents addressed the board at its recent meeting, with each pleading with the board to invest in a program they say adds to the quality of education in Decatur.

“Decatur is growing and with that growth there will be more and more students entering from the special ed population,” said one of those parents, Suzanne Vaden, whose son attends Winnona Park. “So let’s not be the school system that turns away children because of their disabilities and the struggles that come with serving them. Instead, let’s be the system that welcomes diversity and strives to provide the best education for all students.”

The budget process will begin this spring, during which time the board will hear funding requests from all schools and departments, according to Burnett.

Board members requested additional information at the recent meeting. Edwards also said she would like to see a three-year plan developed.

“We want to do every single thing we can for every child who has a need, but we have to live within our means,” board member Julie Rhame said. “It’s going to be a tough budget session.”

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