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Very special, indeed [Editorial]

The latest capital improvement program being developed by Harford County Public Schools for the next fiscal year continues what can loosely be called a positive trend.

School officials are planning to spend more than $1 million retrofitting classrooms and other facilities to make them usable for teaching special needs students. That would follow an expenditure of $250,000 in 2015 to create a special classroom at Fallston High School to accommodate students with autism.

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The significance of this approach is huge. Harford County Public Schools are responsible – especially financially – for educating all children, including those with special needs. If the public schools have neither the facilities nor the expertise to educate special needs kids they have to send them out of the system for their education.

That's not cheap. School officials say it costs $76,000 to $238,000 per student to place them in programs outside of the system. So every student kept in their home school system could save Harford County Public Schools nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

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In the school year that begins after Labor Day in a few weeks, the school system expects students with some degree of autism to total 49 at the elementary level and 12 each at the middle school and high school levels. Keeping that many special needs students in the county school system is a raw savings of between $5.5 million and nearly $17.4 million.

For financial reasons alone, it's important to place as many special students in Harford County Public Schools rather than send them to a costly program elsewhere.

Projections are that incidences of autism will increase. "Prevalence has increased by 6-15 percent each year from 2002 to 2010," according to numbers from the federal government's Centers for Disease Control that were posted on the Autism Society's web site.

For compassionate reasons, it's important to find homes in Harford County Public Schools for students with special needs. They are our children. Their brothers and sisters go to county schools and they should too.

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Obviously, that's an oversimplification. Special needs means just that – each student has special needs that are different from other students. It will be very expensive to create and maintain programs that are broad enough to take care of the special needs of all students.

There are county high schools that don't offer all of the programs available at some other schools in the system. That's the function and result of not having enough kids at every school and not having enough resources for all of the schools.

School officials say the system has, however, reduced the number of special needs students placed in outside programs by about 100 kids in the past three years. That's great progress that will get harder and harder to duplicate going.

As the saying goes, anything worth having is worth fighting for and there shouldn't be anything more important for any of us to fight for than our students – special needs or not.

Expanding and improving facilities for special needs students was the number one priority on the list of priorities, according to a school system formula, for capital improvement projects.

Making it the top priority is how it should be, not only so it gets the right funding, but also so school officials don't lose sight of its importance.

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