The number of students with autism who attend Fayette County Public Schools has increased by nearly 200 since the 2010-11 school year, from 276 to 467.
That was one of several details district staff provided to school board members recently about the annual special education budget, which is projected to be more than $44 million for 2015-16. The school board approved a tentative budget in May and will approve a final budget in September.
There's a greater awareness of autism, "so perhaps people are referring children earlier," said Amanda Dennis, interim director of special education.
Wendy Wheeler-Mullins, the mother of a child receiving special education services in Fayette County, said she thought more children with less severe symptoms of autism are being identified.
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Dennis also said "Families may choose to move to Fayette County because of the services that we provide."
In 2014-15, 4,455 of the district's approximately 40,000 students received special education services, up from 4,108 in 2012-13. The school board set aside an additional $2 million for special education in the 2014-15 budget. Total spending on special education in Fayette County has been more than $40 million since at least 2012.
The number of special-education teachers increased from 303 to 317 in 2014-15. Dennis said the number of teachers for the next school year would be in that range, but the exact number will be based on enrollment and student needs. The number of paraprofessionals who help care for special needs students is dropping, from 355 in 2013-14 to a projected 310 in 2015-16.
"Staff-to-pupil ratio is always a concern, and most parents ... know that lower pupil-teacher ratios is better for the student,' Wheeler-Mullins said.
Dennis said there are times when extra staff has to be hired at a school, such as when a group home for severely impaired children moves into a new school zone, or any time enrollment shifts.
Special education is funded by state, federal and district general fund money.
Lexington faces a variety of issues in special education spending. For example, because black students were given in-school or out-of school suspensions in disproportionate numbers in past years, the district is required to set aside 15 percent of its federal funding for intervention services so that behavior can be addressed before suspension is necessary.
Also, some federal funds that Fayette County receives are required to be spent each year on students who are eligible for special education services and are enrolled in private schools or home schools. For the 2014-15 budget, $101,800 was set aside for those services.
After parents expressed concern about budget cuts in 2014, the school board asked the administration to establish a special education task force to take a closer look at special education district wide.
Its goals were to review best practices in special education locally and nationally, with an emphasis on providing the least restrictive environment, to analyze achievement data for disabled students, comparing their performance to that of non-disabled students in the district and of disabled students statewide; and to analyze special education resources to recommend the most effective and efficient use of human and financial resources.
The task force will make recommendations to the school board. Wheeler-Mullins, a member of the task force, said she has been frustrated with the pace of that group's work.
Wheeler-Mullins said disabled students are performing far below their non-disabled peers. "This is a serious, persistent, long-term problem that absolutely has to be addressed," she said.
She said she was on a similar committee a decade ago.
"We still have the same persistent gap 10 years later," she said.