It took more than 30 people two years to develop Harford County's first comprehensive plan on special education. But the group's real work -- persuading the county to pay for the plan -- is just beginning.
"We cannot go forward if we don't get the funding," said John M. Mead, chairman of the special education long-range planning task force, which developed the ambitious five-year plan.
"We are not going to dump children in settings where there are no resources," Mr. Mead told about 60 parents, teachers and others at the first public hearing on the plan Tuesday night.
The special education plan is designed to bring Harford County into compliance with state and federal laws requiring that children with disabilities be educated in the least-restrictive environment. Almost always, that means schools in the children's neighborhood, the "home" schools they would attend if they had no disabilities.
How to pay for the special education plan proved the biggest concern among those at the hearing.
About 11 percent of the school system's 34,000 students receive special education services. Students with disabilities include children with physical handicaps, such as vision or hearing impairments, and those with learning disabilities and mental retardation.
Mr. Mead, also director of pupil services for county public schools, estimated it would cost $5 million, including $1.2 million for changes to buildings, if the plan were put into effect today.
Most of the $5 million, he said, would go to hire professional staff and instructional assistants. That money would be in addition to the $11 million the school system spends on special education.
Next year, the special education plan calls for hiring 15 teachers at about $30,000 a year and 11 instructional assistants at $15,000 a year, Mr. Mead said. An additional 58 professional staff members and 37 instructional assistants would be hired later, he said.
One woman at the hearing, who described herself as a teacher and parent of a special education child, said she was worried the schools would "dump" children with disabilities into regular classrooms without adequate staff or resources. "All the children will suffer, if that occurs," she said.
Jean R. Thomas, president of the Harford County Education Association shared those sentiments. "I urge you to push at the school board and the County Council and the county executive to support this plan, but not push special education forward without adequate funds," she said.
Jeanne Schmidt, a member of the task force and also mother of a student with disabilities, said the group was prepared to lobby until the importance of the plan was understood.
"If you look at the five-year plan, we are already in the first year. I think parts of it can be done in less time, and some parts may take a little longer," said Mrs. Schmidt, who also heads the county's Advisory Committee on Special Education.
The hearing Tuesday night marked the first time the public was invited to comment on the finished plan.
The plan will go to the school board for review at its Nov. 9 meeting. If the board approves the plan, it will go to the County Council, as part of the school board's budget.
Ronald Eaton, a member of the school board, said "This is the right way to go. We can't afford to not spend the money on special education services." He pointed to the success of a pilot program at Southampton Middle School, where special education children were integrated with other students in 1991. "The special education children and regular kids have both benefited tremendously from working together," he said.
"It's all very well to say the school board members have to decide on this plan. But the people of the county must decide how much they buy into it and how much they are willing to support it and make sacrifices to see it come true," said Anne Sterling, school board president.
Ultimately, she said, the plan hinges on support from the county officials who control the purse strings.
Councilwoman Joanne S. Parrot said she has supported increasing spending for special education, but she would have to see the final plan before making a decision.
Children who need special services are divided into "intensity" levels, a designation referring to the type of services needed and the number of hours needed to receive those services. Intensity levels range from one, the mildest, to six, the most severe.
The 2,687 children classified intensity one, two or three -- who make up the bulk of special education children -- now attend regular classes at their neighborhood schools.
The 550 students receiving intensity four services attend classes in their neighborhood school if they are middle-school age or older. Most younger intensity-four children are
being integrated into their neighborhood schools. They had attended special education centers.
The 253 students receiving intensity-five services are enrolled at John Archer or area behavior adjustment programs. When possible, the special education plan calls for integrating these children into their neighborhood schools.
The 27 county students receiving intensity-six services are in 24-hour residential placement. Some of these children are in facilities outside Harford County and some outside Maryland. Under the special education plan, educators would find places for them in the county when possible.