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Pinellas looks to save millions by tweaking special education

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CLEARWATER -

Pinellas County school officials hope to shave about $6.5 million off their budget by retooling special education programs.

The school district spends $64 million more than the state average on its special education programs, said Bill Lawrence, the school district’s associate superintendent of teaching and learning, during a school board workshop Tuesday.

Closing the K-12 Hamilton Disston School in Gulfport and moving the students to other schools is expected to save $1.8 million, and other special education staffing changes are expected to save an additional $4.7 million. The move will not only save the district money but also will provide more social interaction and extracurricular opportunities for the students, school district officials said.

“We’ve kind of reached this critical point where there aren’t enough students left in the county to make these programs work effectively,” said area superintendent William Corbett. “It’s hard to have electives or certified high school teachers without enough kids. … We feel like this is the right thing to do for these students.”

Next school year, students at Hamilton Disston will move to Calvin Hunsinger School in Clearwater or Richard L. Sanders School in Pinellas Park. The change is expected to boost enrollment at Calvin Hunsinger from 111 students to 150 and from 123 to 140 at Richard L. Sanders, according to school district estimates. Staff members will be reassigned to Pinellas’ four other special education schools or other positions in the school district, said Hamilton Disston Principal Douglas Keimig.

The school was only notified of the change Tuesday afternoon, and many details have yet to emerge. Though the move will undoubtedly affect students and teachers, Keimig said he expects the teachers to still have jobs and students to still receive a quality education.

“It takes a special passion to work with these students,” Keimig said. “It’s not easy, and those people are hard to find. … I imagine a lot of our teachers will follow the students to other schools.”

In addition, the school district will eliminate 15 compliance educational diagnosticians, who identify students with special needs, combine positions and scale back on the way some classrooms are staffed.

Many special education classes are underenrolled, with only three students per teacher in some cases, but other classes don’t have enough teachers, Lawrence said. Now, students will be grouped according to their level of ability, and class sizes will be scaled accordingly. Teacher assistants will be added, if needed.

“All of these recommendations we met with the principals and vetted very carefully,” Lawrence said. “They all agreed this is the best thing to do.”

Built to accommodate 225 students, Hamilton Disston serves only 101 and has about 40 employees on staff. The school building won’t be closed but will be used for drop-out prevention, vocational and other alternative programs, said Superintendent Michael Grego.

“We’re not closing any schools; we’re just repurposing, making sure we’re providing the right curriculum,” Grego said.

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