The Harford County Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to spend as much as $250,000 to renovate a section of Fallston High School to accommodate autistic students.
Some students would be transferred from Patterson Mill High School to Fallston High, under a plan by Harford school officials to expand the number of sites in existing schools where students with autism are educated.
Susan Austin, HCPS director of special education, explained that middle and high school-age autistic students from across the county are transported to Patterson Mill, which serves middle and high school students.
The plan is to eventually have the high school-level students at Fallston High, she said, without explaining when the shift would actually take place. According to the HCPS capital budget, renovations already under way at Fallston are expected to be completed this August, before the start of the 2015-16 school year.
"We have two programs under one roof that is addressed by the need of, really when we look at it, one administrative staff at this school," Austin said of the situation at Patterson Mill.
Having the middle and high school students together affects administrative staff in terms of meetings for each special-needs student's individual education plan and responses when students have a crisis, Austin said, noting that "it also impacts the ability to provide meaningful inclusion opportunities for the students in the school."
"What we'd like to do at this time is to transfer the high school program to Fallston High School and thus create a way for an administrative team to address the needs of the students in a very meaningful way," Austin explained.
She said Fallston High was selected "because it's currently under renovation, and this could be more easily addressed, and also the school population is under capacity."
The funds for autism classrooms at Fallston High would be transferred from money allocated for an ongoing renovation of the school's HVAC system. The transfer must still be approved by the county executive and county council.
The school system allocated $16.4 million in 2014, which is covered by county and state capital funds, for the extensive HVAC renovation.
The renovations are about 50 percent complete, according to school system documents.
Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, told board members the project is under budget, however, and $1.2 million is "unencumbered," or available for additional capital projects.
"We evaluate the capital budget to determine if we have additional funding that can be transferred additional initiatives," Brown said.
He explained that the renovations for students with autism include two classrooms, sensory space, seclusion space, restrooms and a changing room.
Chris Morton, supervisor of facilities management, said facilities staff walked through Fallston High with the principal and special education staff and determined an "open pod area," or common area, in the school would be best suited for the high school autism program.
"We're able to make those changes within that pod, within that common space," he told board members.
Brown said Fallston High is at 70 percent of its state-rated capacity of 1,529 students, while Patterson Mill High, with a capacity of 924 students, is at 94 percent capacity.
He said transportation staff have determined that there would not be any additional cost of bringing the high school students to Fallston, rather than to Patterson Mill, which is south of Bel Air, the two schools being about 7.5 miles apart.
Brown also noted the high schoolers who are at Patterson Mill are already transported separately from the middle school students.
Since HCPS already has included a request for additional special education staffing to serve more autistic students in the fiscal 2016 operating budget, and officials also plan to establish sites for autistic students at elementary schools, board member Robert Frisch expressed concern about expanding facilities for students when the money for expanded staffing is not guaranteed, but he ultimately voted to approve it.
"Are we then going through this process to renovate a building for a program that we might not actually be able to staff?" Frisch asked.
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Superintendent Barbara Canavan and Austin said they will "make it work" with their current special education personnel, even if they don't get money for more staff.