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Consolidation will send Hamilton Disston students to two other schools next year

Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego announced plans Tuesday to consolidate and change special education services in the district, a move that he said would save about $6.5 million.

Grego told the School Board he planned a "re-purposing" of Hamilton Disston School, a center for students with disabilities. Students at the Gulfport school will be moved next year to either Calvin Hunsinger School in Clearwater or Richard L. Sanders School in Pinellas Park.

About 40 Hamilton Disston staff would either follow students to their new schools or be hired for other jobs in the district. Sanders, which now serves students in seventh through 12th grades, would become a K-12 school like Hunsinger.

In addition, Grego said special education students would be grouped in classes based on the level of assistance they need, not their disabilities.

Hamilton Disston will be renamed and will house some alternative programs and, possibly, a future expansion of vocational programs. "We're not closing any school," Grego said at a School Board work session. "I want to make that very clear."

He said Pinellas County Schools spends more on its special education services than other Florida school districts. In some cases, the difference is about 8 percent, while in others it's much higher. For students with the most severe disabilities, for instance, Pinellas spends about $40,802 per student, or about 38 percent more than the state average. But the district isn't seeing much better academic results.

"That's what's driving us in this process, not dollars and cents," Grego said.

He said the district's three special education centers have too few students to offer well-rounded programs with a full offering of electives. The centers were each built for about 200 to 225 students total. They now have about 100 each.

District officials said they didn't alert the faculty at Hamilton Disston about the change prior to Tuesday's meeting; officials planned to visit the school afterward. Elimination of the positions at Hamilton Disston will save about $1.8 million. Other changes to special education staffing will save the rest of the $6.5 million total.

District officials said they have been serving many special needs students based on the type of disability they have, such as autism, rather than the severity of their condition. That meant some classes had too many students and others not enough.

The district also will combine two positions with overlapping responsibilities — a "varying exceptionality liaison" and a "compliance educational diagnostician" — into one school-based job. That will allow for the elimination of some positions.