By Stefanie Jackson – Accomack schools’ proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 prompted public comments Tuesday night supporting the funding of four additional special education teachers and one additional school psychologist.
“We appreciate your recognition of their importance to our children,” said Eileen Holcomb, of Chincoteague, who is the parent of a special education student.
On behalf of her organization, the Special Education Advisory Committee, she thanked the school board for budgeting about $202,000 for the special education teachers and $85,000 for the school psychologist.
Holcomb also suggested reinstating a special education position that was eliminated – the Individualized Education Plan or IEP compliance teacher.
The position is “desperately needed” after Accomack schools received multiple citations last year during a state audit, including 27 violations for noncompliance with IEPs, she said.
Every special education student has an IEP, “a road map for … student supports and services” and “a legal document that must be completed with precision and detail and followed to the letter,” Holcomb said.
The violations are “alarming,” and the idea that IEPs “have not been completed with the care that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act demands” is “even more distressing,” she continued.
Holcomb asked the school board to take “no shortcuts” and give Director of Special Education Jennifer Annis the support staff she needs for effective leadership and compliance with the law.
Accomack County Public Schools cannot afford to be “penny wise and pound foolish” with investments in its 760 special education students, she said.
School psychologists Lori Whittaker, Megan Vance, and Jamie Ibarra spoke in favor of hiring a fourth school psychologist to serve Accomack’s 11 public schools.
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one school psychologist for every 500 to 700 students, Vance said.
She serves 1,653 students at five schools, Ibarra serves 1,740 students at three schools, and Whittaker serves 1,778 students at three schools.
The ratio of school psychologists to students is an average of 2.5 times larger than the recommendation for best practices, Vance said.
Northampton County Public Schools have about 1,520 students and two full-time school psychologists, or approximately one school psychologist for every 760 students, she said.
Dividing the workload among four people would give the school psychologists more “quality time” at each school, less time traveling between schools, “more preventative services, including mental health supports for students,” and more time “making a difference,” Vance said.
Director of Finance Beth Onley presented the proposed budget, which has not yet been balanced and contains a shortfall of about $650,000.
Accomack schools expect about $3.2 million in new revenues in the next fiscal year, accounting for $2.3 million more in state funds included in Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget, nearly $1 million more in local funds approved by county supervisors, but fewer federal funds due to a decrease in the Perkins grant that supports career and technical education.
Proposed increased spending in FY 2021 includes $1.6 million for 4% raises “across the board,” Onley said.
Accomack schools must pay an additional $300,000 into the Virginia Retirement System and $154,000 in increased health insurance costs.
Another guidance counselor is needed and has been budgeted for $59,000. The guidance counselor would serve middle school students at Arcadia and Nandua middle schools and Chincoteague Combined School.
Kindergarten aides currently spend a half-day in class assisting teachers, but a budget increase of $173,000 would allow them to work full days. The proposed increase would affect about eight positions, Onley said.
She emphasized that $200,000 of the local funds approved by Accomack supervisors is designated for the cost of competing with Maryland schools for hiring teachers.
Accomack schools are also pursuing related state funding called the Cost of Competing Adjustment or COCA.
Of Accomack teachers who resigned last year, 34% accepted teaching positions at Maryland schools.