An increase in special needs students is driving Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss to seek hundreds of thousands of dollars for a new combined elementary program targeting children with autism or severe communication disorders.
Mr. Weiss will put a specific figure on the plan — and on two other plans, one for a second preschool class for special needs children and another for an Islandwide schools facilities manager — when he outlines his next superintendent’s office budget at Thursday’s meeting of the All-Island School Committee.
That kicks off a long process which ultimately sees the Island towns debate their taxpayer allocations to the 2008-09 school budgets at annual town meetings. The superintendent’s office budget is divided among Island schools based mainly on enrollment.
Already Mr. Weiss unexpectedly has had to shift about $200,000 from this year’s $2.9 million superintendent’s budget to fund a second Project Headway preschool classroom at the Edgartown School, after the number of Island children aged three to five with special needs rose to 11 this year.
Project Headway is a long-running public program that offers special resources for Island preschoolers with significant learning disabilities and communication disorders.
In the last school year there were seven Island children whose needs required them to be in Project Headway; this year there are 11. State law puts the maximum at seven students for such classes. Mr. Weiss said yesterday he learned of the increase in May and scrambled to get a classroom, teacher, aides and materials in place for the first day of school last month.
That money otherwise would have gone to contracted support services for special needs students, including occupational, speech and physical therapy. These, as well as additional evaluations, will now be added to the duties of the full-time staff.
Because of what he called a dramatic increase in the number of young children with more intensive needs, Mr. Weiss said the demands will not let up next year. So he plans to allocate money for the second Project Headway class in the pending budget. He expects it will cost more than the $150,000 to $200,000 he shifted for this year, because “we will have to staff it appropriately.”
The state’s early intervention service for children under three who are identified with special needs advises the schools of those students. Nine children with identified disabilities will turn three in the coming year, about half of them with autism disorders.
This year each Project Headway class has 10 children (not all with severe special needs), a teacher and up to three assistants. Mr. Weiss said he would prefer to have another aide in the second class.
Because up to four of these preschool students will move into elementary school next year, Mr. Weiss is proposing a new program open to children across the Island with autism or communication disorders — including students who are nonverbal, or cannot process language, even simple instructions.
He said it could cost a school $150,000 to $200,000 per child to effectively work with these students, who are “more severely impacted” in their learning disabilities than many kids already in special needs programs. But teaching several such children in one place would be a more effective program and more efficient financially, Mr. Weiss said. He had yet to calculate what he thought the proposed single program would cost.
Students would continue to be integrated into mainstream classes as much as possible.
The increasing number of special needs children and the increasing severity of their needs demanded a more intensive consolidated program, Mr. Weiss said. Meanwhile, state and federal grants to Vineyard schools for special education have declined from $2.2 million four years ago to $1.8 million last year.
Currently Edgartown has a program addressing learning, social and emotional disabilities for children in kindergarten through third grade, and Oak Bluffs has another for middle elementary students. Mr. Weiss therefore expected to house the proposed new program in the Tisbury School or up-Island, although he had yet to explore location options.
“Hopefully it is a bump,” in the numbers of students with intensive learning disorders, Mr. Weiss said, rather than a long-term increase. “But right now it is a definite need.”
Mr. Weiss flagged both the Project Headway and the elementary special needs classroom budget proposals to the Martha’s Vineyard Finance Association, a group of all the Island finance committees, on Tuesday, and in more general terms earlier this month to the All-Island School Committee. He also told the two committees that his next budget would include a new position of a facilities manager.
The facilities manager job was originally in the budget for the current school year, but Mr. Weiss withdrew it as Island towns already were embroiled in a debate about changing the funding formula for dividing the burden among each town’s taxpayers.
Mr. Weiss said yesterday he believes that maintaining the Island’s 616,000 square feet of school space according to various government rules and regulations required more professional expertise. He would be looking for a licensed plumber or electrician who could manage the complex heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, boilers and roofs of the schools.
Last year, he proposed spending up to $65,000 on the facilities manager position, but he now believes full-time salary and benefits will cost up to $80,000.
The All-Island School Committee meeting is at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18 at the high school.