More special needs classrooms is top Harford school construction priority

More than $1 million worth of improvements to facilities for students with special needs is at the top of the priority list as Harford County Public Schools leaders develop their capital improvement program for the 2019 fiscal year.

The CIP, which is the list of capital projects the school system will submit to the state and county government for funding, is being developed throughout the summer.

The improved classroom accommodations were at top of the funding list under a scoring system discussed with Board of Education members during a Monday evening work session.

The classroom modifications are geared toward bringing more students with special needs back to schools in Harford County rather than having them in "non-public placement" programs outside the county, board members were told. By law, the local school system is required to pay for such placements, including the student's transportation.

"Since we have, over the last three years, rebuilt our autism classroom we have been able to drastically cut our non-public schools [placement]," Susan Austin, director of special education, said.

In 2015, for instance, the school board approved spending up to $250,000 to convert a section of Fallston High School to accommodate high school students with autism. The new facilities were part of a plan to expand the number of sites for instruction of autistic students.

HCPS expects to serve 49 elementary students on the autism spectrum in the coming school year, along with 12 middle school students and about 12 high school students, Austin said.

"Next year, with additional students entering, we will need more space for our elementary students and our secondary students," she said.

Austin said 33 students identified as being on the autism spectrum are in non-public placement. The per-student cost ranges from about $76,000 to $238,000, she said.

She said the number of students in non-public placement has been reduced by nearly 100 during the past three years.

According to the HCPS unrestricted operating budget of $456 million for the 2017-18 school year, almost $8 million is earmarked for non-public placement expenses out of a total special education expenses of $43.8 million. The non-public costs were reduced by $200,000 from the previous year, budget documents state.

Board member Rachel Gauthier said the capital funding request for the classroom improvements — which would have to be all locally funded — could save money in the long run and would be beneficial to special needs students and their families.

"It also impacts their same-age peers and helps them out as well, in terms of having more students around with differentiated learning needs," Gauthier said.

The request of $1.086 million ranked first among capital projects that meet the "critical needs" of the school system.

It got a top score of 25 points, just above a request of $43.8 million from the state and county for the second year of funding for the Havre de Grace Middle/High replacement. That project, which has a total estimated cost of more than $99 million, got a ranking of 22 points, based on the scoring matrix used by HCPS officials.

The top eight critical need projects, based on their scores are special education facility improvements (25 points), Havre de Grace Middle/High School replacement (22), technology refresh (21), Bel Air Elementary School HVAC improvements/closing open-space classrooms (20), emergency systems and communications (20), Fallston Middle School chiller replacement (20), replacement buses (19) and Aberdeen Middle School roof replacement (17 points), according to the list.

Only four of those projects — Havre de Grace, Bel Air, Fallston and Aberdeen — are eligible for state funding. The county government must cover the full cost of the remaining projects, including the special needs classroom upgrades and 52 replacement buses, the latter for which $5.51 million is requested.

Officials have identified 54 buses owned by the school system that will be 12 years old or older by June 2019, according to Monday's presentation.

Twelve years is the ideal service life for a school bus, but HCPS has been getting state approval to extend older buses' lives by one year up to 15 years, at which point a bus can no longer be in service, Joseph Licata, chief of administration, said.

The county provided $250,000 in the fiscal 2018 capital budget to cover two replacement buses, Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, said.

The board voted Monday to transfer $1.075 million in unassigned fund balance from the last budget to purchase 14 more replacement buses for those in service since Sept. 1, 2003. Board members Robert Frisch and Nancy Reynolds were absent.

The County Council, which has the final say on school system budget transfers, was expected to review that request Tuesday evening.

Brown said the request for capital funding would be adjusted to cover the remaining 38 replacement buses.

School officials also expressed concerns about an upcoming shift in the local-state funding formula for capital projects. The shift, which happens about every three years, is based on Maryland's Public School Facilities Act of 2004, according to Licata.

He said the rate of state funding for individual local projects will decline from 63 percent to 59 percent, starting in fiscal 2019 and through fiscal 2021.

Licata stressed that will not affect projects that are already in the pipeline, such as the Havre de Grace Middle/High replacement. It will, however, affect projects that are submitted this fall and approved for funding over the next three fiscal years.

"We'll likely get the same amount of money, pretty much, that we receive each year from the state," he said, which amounts to about $16 million. "It just means we'll have fewer projects to do because the county will have to pony up more money for their share."

"It's hard to tell what the impact will be until we know what the projects are and what the scopes are," Licata explained Tuesday.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the final CIP Sept. 11; it must be submitted to the state by Oct. 4.

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