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Special-needs students may face larger classes

Published Sep. 12, 2005

Citrus County school officials fear that class sizes for students with special learning needs may balloon next year if a financing measure winding its way through the Legislature wins final approval.

Each year, the school district seeks dollars to hire additional teachers for Exceptional Student Education to keep up with the growing numbers of ESE students in the district.

For each of the last few years, ESE Director Neal Weiss has requested money to hire 10 teachers, using enrollment estimates as the basis for the request. He typically has received funding for nine or 10 positions each year.

This year, Weiss asked for 11 new teaching positions. A week ago, he was told that Citrus is recommended to get one such position, based on a recommendation by the state committee that determines how much each district should receive.

"It's totally ridiculous, but they're doing it anyway," Weiss said.

The dollar amount requested by the district was $783,293 based on the projected increase in student numbers and programs.But the legislative committee cut that request to $110,685.

"I'm telling you, this really stinks. We really do need 11 more classes. . . . I need these dollars so that I can hire people," Weiss said.

Citrus County's student population has shown steady growth over the years and the population of students identified as exceptional continues to grow as well, prompting the need for more teachers to help provide more services.

The term "exceptional students" includes gifted students and those with learning disabilities, emotional, physical or mental handicaps.

Weiss said exceptional student programs across the state will be hurt by the new funding formula. In Citrus, the effect will be significant.

"This will make classes bigger, classes that are already too big," Weiss said. "We already have more kids in some ESE classes than we have in some mainstream classes."

The situation is so extreme statewide that Florida Education Commissioner Frank Brogan wrote a letter to Gov. Lawton Chiles earlier this month urging some changes in the funding plans. Brogan urges a recalculation of the funding amounts "to more appropriately reflect adequate student growth."

In a letter Weiss wrote to the district's ESE advisory council last week, he urges council members to contact their local lawmakers.

Weiss said he is afraid that the money the legislature has offered to reduce class sizes at the kindergarten and first grade levels has come from monies previously destined for exceptional student programs.