Tag Archive | "special education"

School District Administrators Propose Plan for In-House Special Education Program in Sag Harbor

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Sag Harbor seniors celebrate their graduation following the Pierson High School commencement ceremony on June 28, 2014. Photo by Michael Heller.

Sag Harbor seniors celebrate their graduation following the Pierson High School commencement ceremony on June 28, 2014. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

Hoping to develop a new in-house program for students with disabilities, Sag Harbor School District administrators proposed a special education budget to the Board of Education on Thursday, March 12, that would keep those students in the district while still reducing expenses by almost 5 percent from last year’s budget.

“For the first time in many years, we have a lot of preschool students with some very profound disabilities,” Director of Pupil Personnel Services Barbara Bekermus told the board. “These are our kids and they should be in our schools is the bottom line…. I also think it’s a benefit, and it’s more effective to keep the students in our school financially, but most importantly, they belong in our community.”

Ms. Bekermus said the parents of special needs students that she has spoken with are “so excited” at the prospect of their children staying at Sag Harbor Elementary School, rather than traveling to programs as far away as Center Moriches and Cutchogue, and spending as much as three hours on a bus each day.

The in-house program would be a class with students in kindergarten, first and second grade, with up to eight students, a teacher and three teaching assistants. Ms. Bekermus said there are about 11 students entering those grades who would qualify for the special services and estimated that four or five of them would be assigned to the special class, while the rest would be based in inclusion classrooms. The elementary school already has a behavioral specialist, Elizabeth Rasor, on staff.

“When I observe other programs and I know what Sag Harbor Elementary School does, I know we can do it as well if not better…I have total confidence,” said Ms. Bekermus.

If the district does not start its own in-house program at the elementary school, it would be required to find alternative placement for those special educations students and would need to pay tuition to the school they attend, such as Childhood Development Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton. The district also pays busing costs for those students.

Even with adding the teachers, speech therapist and occupational therapist, and the respective salaries and benefits, Ms. Buscemi said, “you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings.” If the district decides to pursue an in-house special education program, the new students coming in would add a projected cost of $614,000, School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi said. She said those costs would be offset by lower expenses elsewhere, such as for busing and tuition rates.

Despite the projected increase for the proposed new program, the special education budget would still be decreasing by 4.9 percent overall. The proposed budget for next year, the 2015-16 school year, for special education is about $3.8 million, a decrease of nearly $200,000 from the current school year’s operating budget.

“It would still cost the district and taxpayers less if we bring it in-house than if we don’t. So, this is a benefit to the students and it’s a benefit to the taxpayers,” summed up Chris Tice, the board’s vice president.

Ms. Bekermus noted that if students choose to stay at CDCH despite Sag Harbor having its own program, the district would still have to pay for those students.

“This is heart-driven, this is really all about children,” said Superintendent Katy Graves, who was in support of the proposal, citing research that “tells us when students are around their peers they make much faster progress,” and that special education students often read at a faster rate and excel when “mainstreamed” into their local schools with students of all levels.

There is also the advantage of students being integrated into the community where they will likely be working and living as young adults and adults, Ms. Bekermus said.

Ms. Tice added that non-special education students would likewise benefit from developing relationships with their peers who have disabilities.

After hearing about the impact of tax rate projections at its upcoming budget workshop on Monday, March 23, the Board of Education plans to adopt the budget on April 22, with a hearing scheduled for May 5 and the annual budget vote and election on May 19.

Reading, Writing… And the Onset of Nausea

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web_SEPTA Workshop 3-20-12_6986

By Claire Walla

Last week, the Special Education Parent Teacher Organization (SEPTO) was blatantly trying to make me mad.

And it worked.

I was jealous of the “smarty pants,” frustrated by my own inabilities and I harbored animosity for my instructors who, arguably, were just trying to do their jobs. Learning was not fun. I wanted no part in it.

But, that was the point.

At this SEPTO event, titled “Take a Walk in Their Shoes” and presented by Lynn Burke of the International Dyslexia Association, I, along with 48 other teachers and parents from across the East End, were put through situations designed to make learning tough.

“These are contrived circumstances,” Burke initially informed the crowd. “But, they’re designed to let people experience what it’s like to be dyslexic.”

I sat at a table with half a dozen others, including two out-of-work, recently certified teachers and two mothers from Southampton.

Knowing full well that the exercises we would be put through would be difficult — only moments before we began, Burke told me that a Sag Harbor teacher had become nauseous earlier in the day when asked to perform these same tasks — I vowed to remain calm, cool and collected.

I may not pass with flying colors, I told myself, but I would at least be able to avoid the onset of nausea.

By the time the first exercise — called the “unfair hearing test” — began, I could see how one could succumb to illness.

Seated around a standard boom box in the far corner of the Pierson Library, surrounded by other groups of highly audible people who made no allocations for the fact that we were actually being expected to decipher sound, our task was theoretically very simple: listen to 10 words as they’re spoken, then write them down.

The list was repeated three times, the words spoken at various frequencies, and, naturally, the recording was fuzzy — which became the blame for my utter ineptitude.

The first word, we eventually learned, was “fill.” I had captured the sound in my head as “arrow” at first, and then as “bill.” The second word, “catch,” I had heard on all three occasions as “cat.”

It got worse.

“Juice” had sounded at first like “sleep” and then as “tooth.” And the word “shows” sounded different all three times I heard it: “say,” “toes” and then — it horrifies me to admit it — “seven.” (I have no idea.)

It was a pitiful show. But at least I could blame my struggle on the ambient noise. During the next few painstaking stations, it was just me: my eyes and my brain.

At one station, we were asked to read a short paragraph out loud; but, complicating matters, of course, the words had all been written backwards, and we didn’t have mirrors. (Most of us — struggling to progress from one word to the next — failed the brief reading comprehension test at the end of the story.)

The mirrors were saved for another station, where were forced to trace letters while looking at our papers through a mirror reflection.

At this point in the evening, I was thrilled by the fact that my relatively squiggly pencil marks didn’t venture outside the generously thick, black letters on the page. In fact, I was doing pretty well until I got to the very bottom of the lower-case ‘q,’ right where the tail flips up. For some reason my fingers were paralyzed, my pencil refusing to veer ever so slightly right. My hand simply wouldn’t do what I was internally screaming at it to do.

But, as frustrating as it was, the coded reading station was the worst.

The first page of our story packet contained a simple sentence written in plain, old, regular English. However, various words were followed by random assortments of symbols. These codes, we learned, were used throughout the rest of the story in place of the English words they were associated with. The frequency of the coded words grew as we progressed through the story. Once I figured that out, all effort to engage in the text completely vanished.

And then I was called upon to read.

Others in the group had already pled frustration and passed. I figured I’d give it a shot. Staring at the page, I stuttered, pausing for what felt like minutes at a time as I flipped through the pages of the text, looking for the words I needed to decode the words in the sentence.

“The….” I flipped to the first page. Not there. Where was the damn word?!

“Books,” one girl in our group chimed in. She did this a lot.

“Good job,” our instructor praised. She then turned back to me, “How does that make you feel?”

I wanted to punch the table. I had never wanted to punch a table. But I did then.

According to Burke often times dyslexia either goes unrecognized or isn’t properly addressed.

“We’re about 20 to 40 percent of the population,” Burke continued. And while she estimated 60 percent of those who have dyslexia are able to conjure up a language that allows them to translate what they see into something they can understand, Burke said the other 40 percent “struggle.”

“Forty percent of kids in fourth grade are reading below grade level,” she added. “And once it gets to that point, it doesn’t change.”

After the excruciating bout of exercises that night, I spoke with Erin Albanese, a special education teacher who is currently working as a substitute teacher while looking for full-time teaching work.

“The students are frustrated all the time,” she said. “They’re lost in space,” she continued, and when they don’t have answers and can’t do their work, “they run to the bathroom, or to the water fountain. They have trouble expressing themselves.”

Our group eventually learned that the “smarty pants” among us was actually a reading teacher who said she used the various tools she gives her students to decipher the foreign words we encountered at each station. She knew the word I was searching for was “books,” for example, because the image associated with that page of text contained books.

Burke concluded the evening by stressing the importance of recognizing dyslexia and other learning disabilities and addressing each situation appropriately. Understanding what students struggle with is key, she added, because there are tools out there to help students learn.

“It’s important that you learn as much as you can about dyslexia,” Burke stated. “And try to spread the word.”

Sag Schools’ Budget Projected Below Two-Percent Cap

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By Claire Walla


Instead of eyeing efforts to pierce the state’s new tax-cap policy, the Sag Harbor School District is hoping to avoid it altogether.

At a budget hearing last Monday, February 6, the district’s superintendent, Dr. John Gratto, revealed a proposed budget for the 2012-2013 school year that came out at $34,182,256, an increase of just barely $1 million over this year’s operating budget.

While it represents a total spending increase of 2.88 percent, Janet Verneuille, the school district’s director of business operations, estimated that this budget figure only accounts for a 1.94 percent tax-levy increase. By comparison, this year’s operating budget represents a tax-levy increase of 5.48 percent.

“I can’t say for sure that we’re within the tax cap, but I’m about 90 percent sure,” Dr. Gratto told the board.

While Verneuille said she is still waiting for the final details on the tax levy legislation from Albany and cannot officially calculate what effect it will have on the district budget until then, her current estimates have the school’s proposed budget coming in under the cap by just about $30,000.

Should this scenario remain true after the school crunches its final budget numbers, the school district’s budget will only need to be approved by a majority of voters in order to be adopted.

(If the school should present a budget that surpasses the state’s tax-levy cap, the district would need a supermajority of all votes — at least 60 percent — to be able to pierce the cap.)

Dr. Gratto made sure to point out that the school’s efforts to keep the budget under the projected tax-levy cap do not involve any cuts to teaching staff, sports teams, elective classes or after-school clubs. They do, however, provide plans for taking $500,000 out of the school’s current fund balance to use for capital projects.

“Using your fund balance is like using your savings,” Dr. Gratto explained. “But we think that we can replicate this [revenue] next year.”

According to Verneuille, the district will end the current school year with a savings of roughly $800,000. About $60,000 is attributed to transportation savings, $467,000 comes from savings in the special education sector, and the business office secured another $267,000 in savings through several measures, including putting internal controls on staff overtime and refinancing the 2002 bond issue.

Verneuille said the school finally reached a fund balance at the end of last year that represented 3.96 percent of the school’s overall expenses (the state recommends 4 percent).

But, Verneuille added that the district could see more savings over the coming years if voters elect to purchase six more buses for the school district.

“I’m optimistic that, if the bus proposition passes, it will have to help us,” Verneuille stated.

By eliminating contractual expenses for transportation, she estimated the district could save $45,000 next year alone, and roughly $600,000 in the next seven years.

“This year is easy, in some ways, because we can look at every category and say where we can make changes,” Verneuille continued.

She added that every budget code, in her opinion, has been scrutinized by every administrator.

“But, at some point you’re going to be getting the best price for every purchase. At some point there’s going to be no more savings unless you move [to cut] different categories.”

At this point, Dr. Gratto said the school district is very lucky that it hasn’t had to make any cuts to personnel.

He referenced slides showing how the school’s expenditures balance out. According to the proposed budget outline, 78 percent of the school’s funds will go toward educational programs, versus 9 percent for administrative needs and 13 percent for capital projects. And of those program expenses, 63 percent of the budget is dedicated to regular K-12 instruction and special education.

“Direct instruction and support instruction are the two [line items] that matter most,” he said. “We’re very fortunate that we’ve been able to leave those untouched.”

Teaching Budgets Projected to Remain Relatively Flat

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By Claire Walla

According to both Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols and Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone, the Sag Harbor School District’s anticipated instructional costs will remain relatively flat going into the 2012-2013 school year.

At a budget presentation on Monday, January 23, Nichols and Malone reported projected budgets that will see district totals increase roughly 6.99 percent over this year’s operating budget.

Overall, teaching costs — which include teachers’ salaries, equipment costs, contractual fees and textbook prices — are projected to increase $731,784 next year, bringing the 2012-2013 total to roughly $11,197,784 million, versus this year’s operating budget of $10,465,851.

The district’s business manager Janet Verneuille explained that the only changes in staffing will include the additions of a new sixth-grade teacher and a new English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching assistant, who actually began working in the district last year but wasn’t hired until after last year’s budget was adopted, and therefore hasn’t been factored into the budget.

Sag Harbor School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto added that the district has seen a decrease of four special education teachers and one nurse, who had been at Stella Maris Regional School until the school closed last spring.

Principal Nichols asserted that there are “not that many significant changes to the budget.”

While equipment costs for all departments are looking at a 2-percent increase (or $4,757) for next year, a decrease in special education by $1,053 and a $12,531 drop in co-curricular activities more than make up for it.

Part of the high school’s extra costs for next year are expected to go to the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which will add another $14,500 to the annual budget. The annual fees for the program are $11,000, the program’s software management program (ManageBac) is $1,000 and an additional $2,500 has been allotted for field trips. Nichols explained that part of the program requirements for foreign language classes include field trips to areas where those languages are spoken, so students will most likely attend trips to parts of New York City.

Nichols went onto explain that the school will also spend $30,000 on professional development to allow more teachers to attend IB training workshops. Although, he added that this expense is part the school’s budget each year regardless of whether or not it is used specifically for IB training.

Nichols noted the fact that Pierson High School has not yet garnered approval from the IB board and is not yet officially an IB school; however, he said he expects to know whether or not the IB diploma program will be offered next fall as soon as this spring.

“We have to submit some paperwork to IB this week, then we’ll have a site visit within the next two months,” he explained.

Following in the wake of Nichols’ presentation, Malone said IB is one of the focuses of next year’s elementary school budget as well. Though the school is not on-track to implement the IB Primary Years’ program, Malone said he plans for teachers to attend IB training to learn more about the program and bring that information back to the community. This way, if IB principles are instilled in the elementary school curriculum, he said students will be better prepared for the diploma program once they get to Pierson.

Malone is currently budgeting $44,292 for professional development (roughly a 17 percent increase over this year), of which he said about $10,000 will be dedicated to IB training.

Dr. Gratto confirmed that the district does not intend to implement the IB primary years’ program. Rather, IB training at the elementary school will help primary teachers better train students for the high school curriculum.

“We believe there’s a lot of benefit to attending these workshops,” Malone added.

He also explained that he’s exploring options for a new math series at the elementary school, which takes advantage of new technologies. And although Malone hasn’t settled on a program, he’s set aside roughly $30,000 in next year’s budget for this purpose.

Finally, Verneuille reported that employee benefits are expected to see an 8-percent increase next year, bringing this year’s total benefit costs from $6.8 million to $7.3 million next year.

While Verneuille said she’s still waiting to see the projected rates for teachers’ retirement costs, she said the rates for health and dental insurance are projected to jump by about 10 percent and the rates for employee retirement costs are expected to jump 12.5 percent—“we got whammed on that!” she exclaimed.

A comprehensive budget breakdown is scheduled to be presented before the Board of Education at its next meeting, February 6.