Howard County school board members praised last night a sweeping proposal to improve special education programs, saying the initial $4.7 million expense may save the school system money in the long run.
"I really see this as a fundamental reinvention of how we do special education," said school board member Stephen C. Bounds. "That's a big task."
The proposal released this week focuses on giving diploma-seeking disabled pupils better exposure to the regular curriculum, preventing the unnecessary referral of some pupils to special education and improving relationships between parents and staff.
Superintendent Michael E. Hickey is seeking $3.3 million in this year's operating budget request for the program, which the board must approve. The balance of the $4.7 million would be sought in 2001 and 2002.
The proposal also marks the first time the special education office has suggested changes in general education. The school system wants to provide more options for children who are not doing well in school but who do not need special education.
Sandi Marx, director of the office of special education, pointed out that black children are overrepresented in special education. This school year, they make up almost 23 percent of special education pupils while they represent 17.2 percent of all pupils.
"We know that enrollment in special education begins in general education," Marx said. "The intention here is to provide intervention whenever it is needed in a student's school years - not just the early years."
Because the new Maryland high school assessment tests will extend to special education pupils, the proposal calls for a high school pilot program to help pupils with special needs meet the test requirements.
Though they acknowledged that the plan comes with a large price tag, school board members deemed the changes important. Board member Sandra French said the proposal "far exceeded" her expectations, and fellow member Laura Waters pronounced the plan "on the right track."
Bounds said the intervention component was significant, saying it could save the school system money if fewer children are referred to special education.
"Long range, not only is it good for those kids, but it can have a tremendous impact on our budgetary requirements," he said. "We have to be long-sighted on this."
Sue Ann Shafley, a parent with two children in special education, said she was frustrated with the school system and elected to home-school one son. But she said she is optimistic about the new approach.
"I've seen a more collaborative process start to develop between parents and staff," Shafley said. "I urge parents to respond to the county's efforts to reach out."
The board will vote on the proposal later this month.
Also at last night's board meeting:
Hickey presented an operating budget request of nearly $293 million for next year, a 7.4 percent increase over this year's budget. The increase would be used for reduced class sizes, new special education initiatives and other school system improvements.
About 75 percent of the budget request - $215.2 million - would come from the county. County Executive James N. Robey has said that the school system isn't likely to receive that much money.
School officials said the improvements are priorities.
"There are some things that everybody seems to agree are critically important," Bounds said. "Those things come with a price tag."