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Funding an issue at special education schools

Posted: 4:16 PM, Sep 16, 2015
Updated: 2015-09-16 16:16:17-04

Trevor Barton might have only 10 students in his high school math class at The Harbour School, but that doesn’t mean a small workload for the fourth-year teacher.

All 10 of those students will be working on 10 different lessons at the school, which offers individualized education for special education students.

It’s rewarding work for Barton, whose younger brother had a stroke at age two and was in special education programs as a result. But tighter budgets and less money for raises have left teachers like him wondering how long they can survive financially.

The Harbour School is one of 85 nonpublic special education schools in Maryland approved by the state Education Department. The schools work with publicly funded students whom public schools don’t have the resources to educate.

“These are the kids that have been pushed out of public school, and we’re that last line of giving them hope,” Barton said.

The state and local school systems share the cost of tuition for students referred to these schools. The Maryland Association of Nonpublic Special Education Facilities will lobby lawmakers during the 2016 General Assembly session to increase the rate, in large part so these teachers can earn what their counterparts in public schools do.

“These are publicly funded kids,” said Dorie Flynn, MANSEF executive director. “They’re teaching the same curriculum as the public schools.

Barton said with a master’s degree, a teacher will start off making $30,000 per year at The Harbour School. Teachers at public schools earn a minimum of $40,000 per year, according to the Maryland State Education Association.

“I definitely know some teachers who have left to go work in public school,” said Barton, who acknowledged leaving the school for a better paying job elsewhere could be a possibility in the future.

According to figures from MANSEF, the tuition rate was increased by 0.8 percent last year by the Department of Education, after several years of freezes. But the General Assembly opted not to grant the increase.

Flynn said she’s “optimistic” things will be different next year.

She said the rate has long been an area of concern for MANSEF. In 2010, after rates had been frozen for four years, MANSEF conducted a survey of members to learn how it affected them.

Forty-eight percent said they laid off staff and reduced benefits, while nearly three quarters said they froze their teachers’ salaries. Another 22 percent gave their staff furlough days.

“We serve the neediest students, and it’s definitely hard for us to find qualified teachers,” said Sarah Headley-Boyd, program director at the PHILLIPS School in Laurel, which educates students with emotional and behavioral problems.

The school employs a dozen teachers. It’s not uncommon to lose one or two each year to higher salaried jobs in other schools.

“Enough that it’s noticeable,” she said.

Susan Gray is a teacher at Villa Maria School in Harford County, which provides educational as well as clinical services for students with emotional and learning disabilities.

Financially, she said, she’s not necessarily in a worse position than her peers teaching in Harford County Public Schools, noting they went several years without raises.

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On the other hand, MANSEF schools are in session 216 days a year, per state law.

“There do seem to be a lot of teachers leaving, because of the pay and also the benefits,” Gray said.