Danedri Thompson
Parents of special education students met with Gardner Edgerton School District Superintendent Bill Gilhaus and directors of the school’s special education programs last week.
Approximately 15 parents aired concerns about special education classroom sizes, the number of paraprofessionals provided to students and technical needs to assist special education students with communication skills.
“I can’t make a commitment on all of those, but we can re-evaluate,” Gilhaus told parents during the evening meeting.
Almost 13 percent of the district’s students have IEPs, or individualized education plans. That number includes gifted and special education students. The percentage has remained fairly consistent, but as the district grows, so do the number of special education students. For example, there were 760 students with IEPs in 2010. In 2012, there are 853 students with IEPs in the school district.
Gilhaus said funding cuts from the state have presented financial challenges for the USD 231.
For example, he said in 2010, the district spent $7.7 million on special education. In 2012, USD 231 budgeted to spend $8.4 million. Of that, $5.3 million was funded through the state and federal government in 2010 and now $5.9 million is funded through state and federal funding.
Locally, the district’s general fund made up the difference between expenditures and revenues for special education.
Meanwhile, Gilhaus explained, the state continues to lower base state aid per pupil. Despite cuts from the state and the loss of ARRA funding, or stimulus funds, directed to special education, USD 231 has increased its special education funding year-over-year.
“If we want more money in the classrooms, we need more money from the state,” Gilhaus said.
Jennifer Smith Currier, the mother of a high school student with autism, said in addition to financial issues, the district is also facing a freight train with special education students  advancing all at once from lower grade levels to the high school. She expressed concerns that the district may not be ready.
“We knew several years ago that there’s a cluster of kids, and now they are beginning to filter to the high school,” Judy Martin, director of special education student support services, said. “We know that train is there. We are very well aware that the numbers are coming to the high school.”
Gilhaus said with continued cuts to state aid, there will be less money for teacher raises and paraprofessionals who work closely with special education students.
Parents also expressed frustration about special education at Nike Elementary.
Through attrition, the district lost paraprofessionals in that classroom, and have yet to replace them.
“Nike is playing catch-up,” Jody Marshall, director of special education learning services, said.
Several parents expressed gratitude for how the district handles its special education population.
“I think the special education programs are doing an excellent job,” Gilhaus said. “I hope we’re good listeners.”