LISD approves hiring 20 additional special education staffers

Parent urges meaningful inclusion 

By APRIL S. KELLEY, Hill Country News

Local parent Kevin O’Brien asked the Leander Independent School District to make “meaningful inclusion” part of the special education program, prior to the board’s approval to hire 20 additional staff members for the program at a cost of nearly $800,000. This happened at the Sept. 5 board meeting.

“I understand that there is going to be about $800,000 going towards special education,” O’Brien said. “I hope that you guys focus not just on hiring more teachers but changing the mindset of what meaningful inclusion is and why it works.” 

In special education programs, inclusion secures opportunities for students with special needs to learn alongside their non-disabled peers in general education classrooms. 

O’Brien said meaningful inclusion helps everyone. 

“All the evidence is there,” he said. “Meaningful inclusion helps everybody. Let’s try to change the mindset all the way down to the teachers as to what meaningful inclusion is, so we can have someone come in and try to change the culture in the district.”

Matt Bentz, LISD chief academic officer, requested to hire 20 additional staff members for the special education program at the cost of nearly $800,000. 

“We have come to you tonight (Sept 5) to request additional special education staffing to address the most critical needs on our campuses,” Bentz said. “Over the last couple of years, I have seen increased collaboration and coordination of the special education department, human resources and finance to be careful stewards of our tax payers’ money.”

Growth in special education

Bentz said special education grew 10.9 percent last year, with a growth projection of 6.9 percent. As for the 2019-2020 school year, Bentz said the district has already seen a growth rate of 9.3 percent. 

“The trend will be that it will continue to grow, so we do have some critical needs,” Bentz said. 

The board approved  hiring 20 additional staff members — five additional teachers, 10 individual assistants and five supporting staff roles including a speech language pathologist, licensed specialists in school psychology and diagnosticians. The total approximate cost approved by the board was $795,176. 

Board comments

LISD board member Pamela Waggoner asked why this issue was not brought up during budget discussions. 

Bentz said they did not want to over-project and over-staff the special education department based on a spike in growth for one year. 

Waggoner said an over-projection would have been better for the system than trying to find almost $1 million two weeks later. 

“What is also a little worrisome about this is where we are going to find these 20 additional staff members,” Waggoner said. “We should have already been looking over the summer.”

House Bill 3

Matt Smith, LISD chief of staff, also said the passing of House Bill 3 affected the late request.

“The Legislature passed House Bill 3 pretty late, so we found out the implications of everything pretty late,” Smith said. “It was a challenge this year, but internally, we do know we have some process pieces that we need to get better at.”

House Bill 3 allocated a one-time payment of $663,540 for additional funding for the special education program to LISD, pursuant to Senate Bill 500.

LISD board member Gloria Gonzales-Dholakia said she wanted to point out that this in a one-time payment for the 2019-2020 school year and not something the district can count on for subsequent school years. 

LISD Superintendent Bruce Gearing said if needed, the district can self-correct in the long-term. 

“We’ll be looking at our special education service model very closely,” Gearing said.