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Prince George looks to cut spending on special needs, at-risk students
By Sarah Steele Wilson, Newsroom Editor
Feb 15, 2013, 15:05

PRINCE GEORGE ­— The amount of money spent teaching children with special needs and at-risk children at private schools is costing more than expected. Now officials are considering alternatives to outsourcing their education.

At the Prince George County Board of Supervisors meeting on Jan. 8, Shel Bolyard-Douglas, director of social services for the county, appeared before the board with the news that Comprehensive Services Act payments are likely to exceed the amount budgeted by $243,177.

CSA funds are set aside to provide for at-risk children and families and are required to provide for children in foster care and children with special education needs.

Many children who fall into that latter group have needs that cannot be met within their area’s school division. Typically, those students are educated by private institutions that specialize in working with children with particular needs. Bolyard-Douglas said it can cost between $45,000 and $75,000 a year to educate a child at a private day school.

After several years of tight budgets, the county and the school division have begun discussing ways that the local children now receiving their education from private day schools might be educated locally.

“What we’ve seen is, for whatever reason, the expenses related to these services have just skyrocketed over the last three or four years, so that’s when we’ve started looking at it,” Bolyard-Douglas said.

Special education-related CSA costs are expected to amount to $833,320 by the end of the fiscal year, out of a CSA budget that is expected to be approximately $1,016,756.

“It’s real wide open now,” she said. “There’s nothing specific. We’re just trying to look at what else can we do, because the one thing we know is if we do nothing, and we continue to do it how we were doing it, we’ll continue to spend a million dollars for CSA every year.”

Dr. Bobby Browder, superintendent of Prince George Schools, said that the division has been sending students to private providers in the Richmond area. Hopewell School Division hosts elementary and preschool-aged children with autism spectrum disorders from throughout the region.

“Part of our growing dilemma though is as this population increases, we need to expand our program regionally, in Hopewell, or we need to replicate the efforts of Hopewell here in Prince George,” Browder said.

“That’s what we’re looking at,” he added.

He said that the school division has been in discussions with some of the private providers they’ve worked with to discuss effective cirriculum, teacher education and other considerations that might need to be taken into account while establishing a local solution.

Further complicating the situation in Prince George is the status of Impact Aid, funds the county receives from the federal government in lieu of local property tax collections and local real-estate tax collections for children from Fort Lee, who attend Prince George County Schools.

Fort Lee is part of the military’s Exceptional Family Member Program, which means that soldiers with children with special needs can be stationed there. While Impact Aid for special needs students is greater than it is for students without special needs, it is not equal to the $45,000 to $75,000 the private day school programs can cost.

The Impact Aid program has never been fully funded, and payments vary in amount based on the federal government’s funding streams. The program also faces cuts through sequestration. The school division is bracing for a $231,575 drop in Impact Aid as a result.

Browder said cuts in impact aid will make it harder to provide a quality education to the division’s students.

“Where do they expect us to get the money from to educate these populations?” he asked.

Both Bolyard-Douglas and Browder said that a local program for non-elementary-aged students could also help surrounding districts, who could keep their students closer to home. It would cut down on the amount of time they have to spend on the bus.

Bolyard-Douglas said if there is a way to educate students with special needs that exceeds the county’s current abilities locally, it merits consideration.

“Unless we do something differently, we just need to be in agreement that we’re just going to fund outsourcing these services,” Douglas said. “But, dollars are tight, and if there’s anther way to do it, we need to look at that.”

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