More classrooms for students with autism remains top Harford schools priority

Placing additional classrooms tailored for students with autism in more schools continues to be the top capital budget priority of Harford County Public Schools.

The proposed HCPS Capital Improvement Plan for 2020 calls for locating two STRIVE program classrooms for elementary students with autism at William S. James Elementary School in Abingdon and two classrooms for high school students at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air.

The estimated cost of the four classroom modifications and related bathroom, changing and sensory facilities, is $1,042,000, according to the proposed CIP, which was submitted to the Board of Education for its review on July 23. In the current capital plan, however, $200,000 was earmarked, so the additional funding needed for the classrooms and related facilities is $842,000.

In addition to the STRIVE classrooms, four additional special education buses will be acquired to transport students to the new facilities.

The school board is expected to discuss the 2020 Capital Improvement plan at its meeting Monday night and to act on it during September, after which it will be submitted to the county and state for final funding decisions. Superintendent Dr. Sean Bulson has recommended that the plan be adopted as submitted to the board.

The second priority in the capital plan is continued funding for the Havre de Grace High and Middle School replacement building at almost $13.5 million. Construction is underway, with completion expected in July 2020.

As part of the design, the middle school portion of the Havre de Grace building will accommodate two autism STRIVE classrooms and related facilities, STRIVE standing for Succeeding Together Reaching Individual Visions Everyday. That classroom is part of the 2021 Capital Improvement Plan, as is an additional STRIVE classroom at Fallston Middle School.

“Currently in Harford County, autism classrooms for elementary and middle school students are at capacity,” states the 2020 CIP. “Based on the projected growth, there is a need to modify additional classrooms to accommodate the special needs and anticipated growth of these students.”

Board members were told at July’s meeting that more facilities will be needed in the future for students in the autism spectrum and that federal and state mandates could change at any time to require additional accommodations for these students.

By building these facilities, HCPS potentially saves money by not having to send some students to expensive private instructional services, while also integrating more of them into the local school environment, Dr. Susan Austin, HCPS director of special education, said.

“It’s amazing,” she said of what has been an ongoing, “collaborative effort” among the school system, parents, students and the community to make more facilities available locally for students with autism.

While estimates weren’t available on the number of students with autism HCPS expects to serve in its schools during the next school year, school officials said last year that there were approximately 50 elementary, 12 middle and 12 high school students using existing autism classrooms in the 2017-18 school year.

Other priorities in the 2020 CIP include technology refresh ($13 million), limited renovations to the 46-year-old Joppatowne High School ($1.5 million), emergency systems and communications upgrades ($479,000) and six replacement buses ($4.5 million).

All capital programs for HCPS are dependent on the county and state for funding, and school board members took turns lamenting that the share of state funding continues to decline, putting more pressure on county officials to make up the difference.

“I worry what will happen to our public schools in Harford County,” board member Thomas Fitzpatrick said about the decline in state funding support for school construction and, particularly, repair and renovation.

Fitzpatrick urged the public to “keep informed” about financial support for the schools coming from Annapolis and the trend to provide less and less, which he called “worrisome.”

avought@theaegis.com

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