SEBRING — The School Board of Highlands County has nearly doubled its Exceptional Student Education paraprofessional numbers over a three-year period to serve an increasing number of special needs students.
The district added six ESE paraprofessionals in the 2013-14 school year. The tentative 2014-15 budget shows an additional 12, which would bring the two-year increase to 18.
Assistant Superintendent of Business Operations Mike Averyt said most of the district’s support personnel increases in the past two years have been IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) ESE paraprofessionals, whom he called “enhancement paras.”
“We have been adding so many of those because of the needs of the kids over the last three or four years; we kind of doubled those kinds of positions,” he said.
Student Support Services Director Pat Landress said an increasing number of students have moved into the district in recent years who need assistance, including students who are deaf, who need help with sign language and children with autism, who require someone very close to assist them.
“The biggest increase in my budget is for what we call ‘enhancement paraprofessionals’ who provide medical and other one-on-one services for the children,” she said. “We have children who have extreme needs and, in order, for them to be successful in curriculum and the school setting they have to have that assistance.”
Eventually some students will require less assistance, but others will continue to require help with feeding and other personal needs, Landress noted.
In the last two years, 10 to 15 students who have had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) have moved into the school district. Others have been identified as requiring helpf from a paraprofessional, she sad.
“It’s not a decision that is made lightly; the decision is made by the IEP committee,” Landress said. “We are mindful of the budget, but we are also mindful of our obligation to serve our children with disabilities.”
Averyt noted the increase in ESE paraprofessionals while responding to a question about what appeared to be a large increase in school support workers.
A comparison of the demographic pages of the 2012-13 budget and the 2014-15 tentative budget showed that over two years, the district added 55.5 teachers and 118.5 support personnel for an overall increase of 176 positions.
The district added 42 school-level teachers in 2013-14 with most of those positions added to reinstate the teacher planning period in the secondary schools.
The 2012-13 budget showed the district with a total of 1,467.6 employees - 833.6 (56.8 percent) teachers, 571 (38.9 percent) non-instructional and 63 (4.3 percent) elected officials, administrators and managers.
Averyt said there was not a large increase in support workers.
He explained the food service workers had been tracked by the hours they worked and not by individual positions.
“I had to convert the hours to whole people and that might be the difference there,” he said. “One year I didn’t include them and the next year I did, but they have always been there.
“I decided to add them back in because they are really employees on that page [demographics page], but they are paid out of the federal funds.”
The tentative 2014-15 budget shows 889.1 (54.1 percent) teachers, 689.5 (42.0 percent) support personnel and 65 (3.9 percent) elected officials, administrators and managers for a total of 1,643.6 employees.