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Carroll County schools estimates $1M budget shortfall; teachers push for staffing help, emphasizing special education

Robert Herbstsomer, a special educator for Carroll County Public Sschools, shows one example of the amount of documentation that comes with one student's Individualized Education Program. Educators said CCPS needs to hire more special educators to share teaching and case management duties.
Robert Herbstsomer, a special educator for Carroll County Public Sschools, shows one example of the amount of documentation that comes with one student's Individualized Education Program. Educators said CCPS needs to hire more special educators to share teaching and case management duties. (Courtesy Photo)

Carroll County Public Schools officials heard from educators on the proposed budget, but are potentially facing less funding than they thought from the state.

Since the previous public hearing on the superintendent’s proposed operating budget, Gov. Larry Hogan released his budget for the state.

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The CCPS budget is still in the estimation stages, but with new information about state funding, the school system might be looking at a $1.2 million shortfall from what they first anticipated.

“It’s still an estimate, but it’s a more revised estimate,” Christopher Hartlove, chief financial officer for CCPS, said as he briefed the Board of Education and those gathered for a public hearing Wednesday. The full video of the hearing and work session can be found at carrollk12.org under “Board of Education,” “Meeting Videos” and “Older Meetings.”

State funding is driven by three main factors: student enrollment, inflation and wealth per pupil in the county, Hartlove summarized. Carroll’s wealth per pupil grew faster than other areas in the state. It’s good for the county in general, Hartlove said, but the Carroll school system will get less state revenue than anticipated.

The county’s estimate for funding increase for fiscal year 2021 is about $8.49 million. They had initially estimated about $9.66 million, leaving a $1.17 million gap.

Hartlove said the system will go back and look for efficiencies to see if that can close the gap more, adding that it’s an ongoing process.

Ted Zaleski, the county’s director of management and budget, said the wealth per pupil measurement didn’t translate to a “big pile of money” left over from county funding.

“I don’t think there’s anything we’re looking at that is going to give the commissioners a whole lot of discretion to say, ‘Let’s do something with this money.’ ”

At a public hearing before the budget discussion, the board invited the public to comment on the proposal. Eight people spoke at the public hearing and their messages were mostly similar — CCPS needs more special education teachers.

The speakers thanked the system for including six new special education positions in the proposed budget, but said it was “a drop in the bucket.”

More staffing, they said, is needed to spread out what some described as overfull caseloads and hours and hours of paperwork, “more than is humanly possible." Teachers shared stories of the burden of staying in compliance with paperwork taking time away from teaching, planning and care for students, not to mention their own home lives.

Melanie Jensen, a special education teacher since 1980, shared an example of a colleague with 14 lessons to plan per day for students and a 45-minute planning period, meaning she has about 3 minutes to dedicate to each student. That’s in addition to document preparation, work samples, assessments, reports and summaries of reports, meetings, and other tasks.

“Every heard of being out of compliance?" she asked. “It’s why you don’t see more of us here tonight. Many are home working on completing the paperwork I told you about. It’s impossible to get it done during the school day with everything we are required to do within the deadlines that come with each task. To be out of compliance with paperwork means loss of state funds, which means we could lose our jobs.”

More teachers would mean smaller case loads, “which means better quality teaching, special educators that have a home life and paperwork that is in compliance.”

Robert Herbstsomer said the amount of paperwork has “exploded” over the past few years. He shared an example of an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, from several years ago that was one page plus one page of supplemental material.

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“Now some of the IEPs are between 30 and 40 pages,” he said, and in some situations they can go much longer. IEPs are documents that analyze special education students’ unique needs.

He then shared a long list of the additional paperwork that is required in an IEP folder.

He said, "The real cause [of stress] is the pressure of needing to be compliant with federal regulations, state regulations, as well as local policies and procedures, which are regularly being changed and updated” all while needing to plan for and teach classes, as well as attend to students who may be in crisis.

“I know that the budget is tight and everything cannot be done at once. My hope is that the board comes up with a plan to solve the special education needs of the county and comes up with a way to implement it.”

Kim Robinson, a special educator for 33 years, shared a story of a pregnant colleague, a special educator, who experienced a health problem while teaching. Her doctor said she would possibly need to go to the hospital, and she worried that she might not be able to plug in her laptop while at the hospital to work on IEP paperwork. She shared her own story of stress over falling out of compliance while being hospitalized for an illness.

“I realize you don’t have control over federal mandates, but what you do have control over is how the workload is distributed and how it could be organized between our case management duties and instructional duties,” she said.

Tony Roman asked CCPS to “recognize the sea of red,” a color that educators have adopted in advocating for more resources and compensation.

“These people here are willing to work with you,” he said. "They’ll put in the time and the effort ... Talk to legislators. Talk to the commissioners. Talk to the General Assembly to be able to get the best situation possible for everybody together.”

Donna Yeager, who has 34 years of experience in CCPS, said she has seen changes both positive and negative. When she started, an IEP took about an hour to prepare. Now it takes five to 10 hours to prep drafts, another hour to prepare them for home, and one to three hours for the IEP meeting. After the meeting, another three to four hours is needed to finish the paperwork.

“My occupation should be part of my life that’s rewarding, but it shouldn’t overrun it,” she said.

Kelley McDonough asked the board to address compensation for educators. Money doesn’t make you happy, but not having enough money to meet your needs makes you stressed, she said.

She said that mental health for staff is “in trouble” as they feel the secondary effects of caring for increasing numbers of students who have experienced trauma. The secondary effects take a toll on the educators through anger, guilt, isolation and other symptoms. The system needs more mental health resources for students, but they need more resources and training for staff as well, she said.

At the Board of Education’s meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 12, starting at 5 p.m., the board plans to adopt a proposed budget. After that, the budget gets sent to the county.

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