Several Baltimore County parents have filed a first-of-its-kind complaint with the State Department of Education, accusing the school system of violating the law by failing to provide enough teachers and instructional assistants for the 9,000 special education students taking regular classes.
The six-page complaint contends that Baltimore County school officials devised a staffing plan based on the number of teachers the system could afford, rather than on the needs of students with disabilities, as required by federal and state law.
"The plan is based on how much money is available, not based on what the kids need," said Teresa K. LaMaster of Catonsville, the complaint's author. Seven other parents signed the document, which was filed with the Education Department last week.
The school system declined to comment while state education officials review the complaint. "It would be premature and improper to discuss issues associated with the plan while it is being reviewed," said Charles A. Herndon, county schools spokesman.
The complaint is the first in the state to challenge a public school system's staffing plan for special education students, rather than a program for a particular child.
In 1999, Maryland dropped a statewide mandate for staffing and began requiring school systems to develop their own plans.
The allegation has prompted state education officials to question how they would investigate. They expect to review the staffing available to a sample of special education students in county schools, collect data and interview school officials.
"It really is going to be a challenge," said Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education and early intervention services. Her office has 60 days to investigate, report its findings and, if required, order corrective action.
The Baltimore County school system has more than 13,000 students with disabilities ranging from pronunciation difficulties to a combination of physical, emotional and intellectual problems. Of those, 9,000 take regular classes. Under federal and Maryland law, the system is required to give the students a free education. If appropriate, the child should be educated in a regular classroom.
The complaint accuses school officials of quietly dropping a staffing plan this year that would have required the hiring of 400 teachers and instructional assistants, adopting in its place a plan that didn't provide enough faculty to educate every special education student eligible for regular classes.
As a result, the complaint contends, some children are put in special education classes outside their neighborhood schools.
Kelli P. Nelson, a Reisterstown parent who signed the complaint, said parents hope that if violations are found, county officials will be forced to confront the fact that the school system could lose millions of dollars in state and federal aid if they don't allocate more money for special education.
"We're looking for some teeth so when we go to the county executive and County Council we'll be able to get additional staff and resources," said Nelson, chairwoman of the county's Citizens Advisory Committee for Special Education.
In a written response to the parents during the summer, which was included in their complaint to MSDE, the school system said it formulated a staffing plan after reviewing federal and Maryland law, consulting with teachers and checking the plans of other school systems. It said the plan is rewritten every year.