AUGUSTA — Capital Area Technical Center instructors are worried a planned budget cut will leave them, and the special education students in their classes, without the support they need.

And, they said, about one-third of the student population at the regional technical center, or about 130 students, has some form of special education need.

“We’re all scared what’s going to happen when we don’t have special education support,” said Paul Salois, a 20-year graphic design and printing instructor at the center, which takes students from eight area schools.

The $26.8 million school budget includes plans to eliminate the diversified occupations program at the center, saving about $184,000, according to Superintendent Cornelia Brown.

The cut would eliminate a teacher and two education technicians in the program, which teaches academic courses to center students with special education needs. About a dozen students are enrolled in the program.

That low enrollment is one reason the program is targeted for elimination in the budget.

However about 20 center instructors approached the Board of Education Wednesday to explain diversified occupations staff does more than teach those academic special education classes.

They said teacher Rene Albison and education technicians Eleanor Gay and Muffy Shockley provide much-needed support and special education expertise the instructors said they don’t have.

“I’m a professional builder, and my skills run short when it comes to accommodating a variety of needs of students,” said Bruce Baker, a 23-year carpentry instructor. “It’s my job to provide every student with an equal opportunity to be successful. I admit I fall short of being able to do that without (the diversified occupations staff’s) assistance. Without that in-house support, my fear is those students will flounder, or, worse, we’ll lose those students from our programs without that kind of support to help us do our jobs the best we can do.”

Support will still be there

Scott Phair, director of the technical center, said he is “absolutely confident” special education students will get the support they need at the center without the diversified occupations program in place. He also expressed confidence in the ability of the instructors to accommodate students with special education needs.

He said schools that send students to the center provide academic instruction to their students at their own schools and the students come to the center for instruction in the technical center’s specific program areas, many of which are in trades.

And, Phair said, those sending schools are also responsible for ensuring the needs of their special education students are met. He noted any special requirements of special education students are clearly documented and that information is shared with center instructors, so they know, for example, if a student needs more time to take a test, or verbal instructions or other accommodations.

Phair said the diversified occupation programs may be cut because “the need just isn’t there anymore.”

“All these kids have a special education teacher, a guidance counselor, and in some cases a social worker, in their home schools,” he said. “We communicate with those folks in their home school. If there are things we need to monitor, or need to give attention to, all that information comes in a document, that’s legally binding, and clearly written.

“In these budget times, some things that were necessary in the past become a luxury over time,” he said.

He noted the staff of the diversified occupations program is great, and the program elimination was because of restructuring, not a reflection of their abilities.

Phair said all 12 students in the diversified occupations academic program are Cony High School students, and they will receive special education services through Cony.

Superintendent Cornelia Brown said the diversified occupations coordinator’s position has been reassigned, not eliminated, and the coordinator will instead work with special education students at both Cony and the center.

Brown said if sending schools believe their special education students need additional assistance at the center they can, and do, send an education technician with them.

Albison said one role played by diversified occupations staff is attending many individualized education program meetings held for each special education student and dealing with other program requirements.

However Brown said those meetings already often include teachers, an administrator and special education staff, making the diversified occupations staff participation unnecessary.

Albison and other teachers said they accept that changes could be made to how special education support is provided at CATC, but said it can’t be eliminated altogether.

Jeff Dejongh, a Cony teacher and president of the local teachers’ union, Augusta Education Association, said the program was cut with no information from teachers, which has hurt staff morale.

“The association is requesting the board reconsider cutting all supports to special education at Capital Area Technical Center,” he said. “It’s appalling staff was not asked to participate in the restructuring.”

Phair said in his 30 years in education, one of the worst mistakes he ever made was asking a group of educators in another school system for their thoughts on which of their jobs should be eliminated. He said bad feelings lingered among those educators for years.

“I’m not pleased to have to recommend these cuts,” Phair said. “But I’d much rather (teachers) are angry with me because I made these recommendations than be angry at each other, fighting over what program should survive.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

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