By Ciara Smith, Gary Crusader
For years Gary Community School Corporation’s academic and financial underachievement were top concerns with school and state officials. Now, students with disabilities are taking priority.
According to the Department of Education, the total enrollment for GCSC’s 2016-2017 school year was 5,823 with one in six Gary students identified as having a disability. Despite the large number of students with disabilities in the school system, Gary’s special education department has been troubled for years.
A new bill authored by Senator Eddie Melton (D-Merrillville) will ensure the school corporation has funds to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities.
Senate Bill 475 cleared the Senate by unanimous vote on February 23, changing the statute for learning disabilities in the state of Indiana.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), developmental delay is currently a category reserved for students between three and five years of age.
SB 475 would require the State Board of Education to amend its rule, and add developmental delay as a category for mild and moderate disabilities. As of July 1, 2018 the age cap extends to nine years old.
Marianne Fidishin, Executive Director of special education for Gary schools, says the age increase is warranted. “Many children have disabilities that early intervention can address, and many times it allows full psychological and special education professionals to accurately assess a student’s abilities, said Fidishin. “Eliminating developmental disabilities at certain years of age could be a disadvantage.”
The second bill to be approved from the Gary native’s 2017 legislative agenda, SB 475 allocates an additional $2,300 per student. Beginning in Fiscal Year 2019, special education grants are expected to increase from $4.4 million to $7.7 million.
“The level of services [special education students] need are above and beyond that of general students and it could mean many domains. There are a lot of supplies and materials that general students wouldn’t require for their learning process,” said Fidishin.
“All students deserve fair and comprehensive education, especially in the formative early years,” Senator Melton said. “I am hopeful that SB 475 will continue to move through the House of Representatives in an effort to address this gap in legislation.”
This comes on the heels of a promise for financial solutions for Gary schools.
Senate Bill 567, co-sponsored by Senator Melton and Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, was met with unanimous approval earlier in February.
The current bill declares the School Corporation a distressed political subdivision and forwards financial decisions to a state controlled Fiscal Management Board and the Distressed Unit Appeals Board (DUAB).
However, a similar proposal penned by Melton, has also been introduced. Senate Bill 564 would allow the appointment of a local fiscal management board with the same powers and duties as the governing school corporation.
Comparatively, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, the Gary Community School Corporation, and the superintendent of public instruction, will each select a representative to serve on the board in an advisory capacity under Senate Bill 567.
Three additional initiatives authored or co-authored by Senator Melton focus on school safety, early education, and environmental health for Indiana schools and children.
Senate Bill 556 would mandate that any school or special purpose buses placed into operation after June 30, 2018, be equipped with 3-point lap and shoulder seat belts, should they be used to transport elementary or high school students. The legislation would also require the Department of Education to provide grants to aid with implementation expenses.
Melton co-authored Senate Bill 276 with Senators Travis Holdman, Eric Basler, and Randall Head to extend the early education grant pilot program to any eligible providers in an Indiana county.
Bill 483 coins the term lead contamination area and would require the state department of health to establish a grant-yielding program to enable children in affected areas to receive therapy appropriate to their needs.
These bills await committee hearings in the Senate.