Hundreds more children are expected to enter Hamilton County's exceptional education program next fall, driving up costs even as the Department of Education looks for ways to cut $14 million from its budget.
Officials with exceptional education, which includes special education and gifted programs, are asking the Hamilton County Department of Education for at least $850,000 in additional funding. And to staff all its programs adequately, the program is asking for a total increase of between $1.3 million and $1.4 million in next year's budget.
In all, more than 70 additional teachers, assistants, speech pathologists and others are needed to accommodate the growth in exceptional education, officials said.
"This is not fluff," said Margaret Abernathy, director of exceptional education. "This funding is to provide appropriate programs for these children that is mandated by federal and state law."
Roughly 400 more children will enter special education classes in the 2011-12 school year, Abernathy predicts. That's because more students are testing into the program, which she attributes to more people moving to Hamilton County.
Roughly 6,900 children already receive some level of exceptional education instruction, according to county data. That could range from gifted students and students with mild speech problems to students with severe medical and mental deficits.
"We are having more people move into the Hamilton County area," Abernathy said. "The expansion in industry and the explosion in the Ooltewah and East Brainerd areas bring needs. And when students have needs, we have to address them."
Abernathy last week asked the Hamilton County Board of Education to fund 21 new teacher positions and 32 new assistants, as well as 15 speech pathologists, and five other positions that range from technology positions to an interpreter for the hearing impaired.
She said many of the special education classes exceed the standard student-to-teacher ratio, and with added students, the school system needs more staff.
But school leaders are grappling with a tough budget. Board members are considering $14 million in cuts from its $315 million budget just to bring it into the black.
"The $850,000 request is in our budget," said board member Linda Mosley, who heads the board's Finance Committee. "I'm hopeful we can find the funding for that."
Abernathy said that amount of money will fund the most immediate need, the 21 teachers and 32 assistants, but the other funding is also necessary.
Mosely didn't say the full $1.3 million couldn't be found, but she admitted it would be a challenge.
"We've got to cut $14 million somewhere," Mosely said. "I want to help as much as we can."
In the 2009-10 school year, exceptional education had a budget of $38 million, according to county records. Most of that money comes from local funds.
School leaders meet on Thursday, but as of Tuesday the budget was not on their list of agenda items. Last week, board members received a list of cuts they could consider to balance next year's budget. The list included increases to teacher health insurance contributions as well as $2 million in cuts to capital spending, and $700,000 in cuts to central office spending.
The system is supposed to present its budget to the Hamilton County Commission for approval in the second week of May. Mosley said a meeting is planned for April 28 at which board members will again discuss the budget.
"We could call a meeting the next day to vote on the budget," Mosely said. "I'm hopeful we can have it passed by the deadline."