The Howard County school board held its first public work session last night on Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's proposed operating budget for the next school year.
During the session -- one of three before a Feb. 22 vote on the spending plan -- the board spent almost 90 minutes discussing proposed funding for special education, an area that the school system is trying to improve significantly.
Board members also discussed funding for transportation, health, pupil personnel services and administrative costs.
Hickey is seeking about $325 million in operating funds for fiscal year 2001, which begins July 1, an increase of more than $25 million over this year's spending.
For special education, Hickey is seeking a $3.5 million increase in funding. In discussing the proposal, the board explored the possibility of upgrading "paid helpers," who work one-on-one with severely needy students, to the level of instructional assistants -- a move that would increase their salaries and provide them benefits.
Board Chairman Sandra H. French asked whether anyone had looked into the relatively high number of African-American students in special education programs.
Sandi Marx, the district's special education director, responded by saying administrators planned to launch a pilot program next year in some elementary schools that would introduce a way to identify students in need of special services and offer more intervention before they would be referred to special education.
Marx said teachers too often might assume that a child cannot read or do math because of an inherited problem.
" 'This child's not learning. He must have a learning disability.' That's the jump that seems to be made," Marx said, "when actually that may or may not be true."
In past years, Marx said, increases in the special education budget have reduced teachers' workloads and improved the instruction of special education students. She encouraged the board to continue full funding of improvements in special education.
"I feel like, overall, teachers are feeling more positive, and I think parents are feeling more satisfied," Marx said.
In another area, board member Stephen Bounds said the system might not have to spend so much on buses for the Technology Magnet program as proposed, because fewer than 800 students will be in the program next year -- not 1,417, as projected.
Two more work sessions are scheduled for tomorrow and Tuesday.
After the board approves the proposed budget, it will be submitted to County Executive James N. Robey on March 15.