Fairfax County Public Schools could introduce special education chairs to dozens of elementary schools for the first time if new Superintendent Scott Brabrand’s proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget is approved later this year.
Aligning elementary schools more closely with the department chair model found at middle and high schools, the new special education chairs would be responsible for providing instructional support, behavior crisis management, and enforcement of policies and procedures, including oversight for local screening committees and individualized education program meetings.
In a suggested FY 2021 budget presented to the Fairfax County School Board on Jan. 9 during its meeting at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church, Brabrand allocates $3.5 million to fund part-time chair positions at up to 70 schools with sizable special education populations.
“We currently have teachers who are on full teaching loads trying to be lead special education teachers at our schools,” Brabrand said. “…This is a proactive response, and this chair position will help us not only include best practices in special education instruction, not only ensure better monitoring and compliance of special education policies and procedures, but also will serve as a true leader in the building.”
The newly proposed elementary special education chairs are part of a broader effort by FCPS to bolster resources and support for its special education services, an area where the school system came under scrutiny last year due to its use of restraint and seclusion to discipline students.
In an investigative report published on Mar. 13, WAMU found that special education students in Fairfax County are regularly isolated and put in restraints despite official guidelines stating that those practices should only be used as a last resort if the student poses a danger to themselves or others.
Parents alleged that their children were subjected to restraint or seclusion hundreds of times a year in some cases, but in several years, FCPS reported zero incidents to the U.S. Department of Education, which requires public school districts to share data on discipline.
The report prompted Brabrand to order a full review of the school system’s use of seclusion and restraint, leading to the creation of a special education task force, the appointment of a special education ombudsman, funding for behavior intervention teachers, and additional staff training.
Brabrand announced on Oct. 14 that the special education task force had been suspended due to pending litigation after parents and disability rights activists filed a federal lawsuit against FCPS on Oct. 8, arguing that the use of restraint and seclusion constitutes discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The superintendent stated that he was hopeful the task force would resume its work once the lawsuit is resolved.
With special education enrollment projected to increase in the next year by 3.5 percent, or 955 students, Brabrand’s FY 2021 proposed budget allocates $601.6 million to special education services, a 7.5 percent increase over the approved FY 2020 budget.
In addition to the elementary special education chair positions, the funding includes $400,000 for a restraint and seclusion compliance specialist to provide enforcement and training, $100,000 for additional behavior intervention support, and $900,000 for substance abuse prevention specialists with the ultimate goal of having one for every school pyramid.
The Fairfax County Special Education Parent-Teacher Association says additional staffing and resources are welcome, but an in-depth analysis of student academic achievement, graduation rates, programming, and other data is still needed to determine how special education services can be improved, rather than simply maintaining the existing system.
An independent, thorough audit by specialists knowledgeable in special education best practices should be a budget priority for FCPS, the advocacy organization for students with disabilities and their families says.
“SEPTA applauds the recommendation for increasing funding and support for special education services in the new budget proposal,” SEPTA president Michelle Cades said. “Our questions and concerns fall largely into how this additional funding will be best used to respond to the significant needs of this population. We greatly appreciate the increased attention – and financial support – being given to our students.”
While the proposed FY 2021 budget emphasizes special education support, the primary focus for Fairfax County schools is teacher recruitment and retention, according to Brabrand.
The superintendent is requesting $94.8 million for workforce compensation on top of what was included in the FY 2020 approved budget.
Along with $25.3 million for a 1 percent market scale adjustment for all employees, the funding increase would cover salary scale enhancements, step increases for eligible employees, increased retirement expenditures, professional development initiatives, and $400,000 to bring elementary principal salaries in line with their middle school counterparts for the first time in 15 years.
The recommended budget also includes $300,000 for a Call Me Mister program that provides leadership development specifically for black men to become elementary school teachers.
Inspired by a program started in 2000 by Clemson University in South Carolina, the proposed initiative seeks to improve the diversity of FCPS’s faculty and staff.
Of the 14,493 teachers who worked for the district in 2018, 80.2 percent were white compared to 7.4 percent black, 5.4 percent Asian, and 4.5 percent Hispanic, according to the FCPS Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee’s 2019 annual report, which found that qualified black teachers are less likely to be hired by the county than other similarly qualified applicants.
The Call Me Mister program is among a number of initiatives in Brabrand’s proposed FY 2021 budget intended to address gaps in services and programming in accordance with the One Fairfax policy adopted by the Fairfax County School Board in 2017, which committed the school system to considering racial and social equity issues when making decisions.
Though FCPS anticipates an overall 0.8 percent uptick in enrollment for the next school year, the district projects higher growth rates for demographics that often require more support, including English learners (2.2 percent), special education students (3.5 percent), and students eligible for free or reduced-price meals (6.9 percent, or 3,791 students).
“We need to remove access and opportunity gaps so that we can remove achievement gaps,” Brabrand said.
In his proposed budget, the superintendent suggests using $800,000 to address inequities in the availability of student activities at different high schools based on their free and reduced-price meals eligibility rates.
Brabrand plans to propose addressing the same disparities at the elementary and middle school levels when the FY 2022 budget comes up next year.
The proposed FY 2021 school operating fund budget also includes $600,000 for FCPS’s assistant director of student activities for high schools, which view dedicated staffing for extracurricular programs as a top priority.
The high school assistant director of student activities has generally been part-time at FCPS, so the additional funding will bring the position closer to full staffing.
“We’ve seen the growth of our extracurricular and activity programs, which are sometimes a lifeline, a connection that changes student achievement in the classroom,” Brabrand said. “The reality is that, as we looked at our school staffing, almost all of our high schools trade staffing that could be going for classrooms and class size to have support for this assistant director of student athletics and activities.”
Other equity-related proposals include $1 million reserved to fund recommendations from an external review of advanced academics programs expected to come out later this year as well as $1.5 million for dropout prevention, including on-time graduation counselors at nine schools and support staffing for English-language learners at non-traditional schools and programs.
Brabrand’s request for $4 million to maintain the FCPSOn initiative that provides students with laptops at high schools and bring it to middle schools drew skepticism from some school board members, who argued the district needs to collect more information on how well the program is working in high schools before expanding it.
Braddock District representative Megan McLaughlin says she is not convinced FCPSOn is ready for middle schools. Providence District representative Karl Frisch, who is one of eight new board members, agreed, saying that he has heard complaints about the initiative being inconsistently implemented.
Lee District representative Tamara Derenak Kaufax, the school board’s vice chair, split from her colleagues, saying that she has “heard nothing but positive things about FCPSOn.”
Overall, the $3.2 billion proposed FY 2021 budget represents an increase of $172.2 million, or 5.8 percent, over the current approved budget.
FCPS is requesting transfer increase from Fairfax County of 4.2 percent, or $89.7 million, mostly to fund compensation and benefit increases and costs associated with enrollment increases and student demographic changes.
“I believe that this budget is transparent, needs-based, and really helps us lead in supporting every child by name and by need here in Fairfax County Public Schools,” Brabrand said. “I believe that this budget is deserving of full funding.”
A public hearing on the FY 2021 school budget is scheduled for Jan. 27 with the possibility of additional hearings on Jan. 28 and 29 if necessary.
After meeting for a budget work session on Jan. 30, the school board will adopt an advertised budget on Feb. 6 before the Fairfax County executive presents a countywide advertised budget on Feb. 25.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to approve a county budget, including the transfer to FCPS, on May 5. The school board will then adopt an approved budget for FY 2021 on May 21 after a public hearing on May 12 and a work session on May 14.