The York and Williamsburg-James City County school boards learned this week about a proposal to construct a new building for special education students at New Horizons Regional Education Center’s Woodside Lane campus, a Newport News facility that caters to about 40 special education students from the two divisions.
The students from the two divisions — along with students from Poquoson, Gloucester, Newport News and Hampton — currently receive instruction in large, modular units: think larger versions of the trailers you sometimes see behind schools. That classroom space is reaching the end of its operational life, which leaves the administration at New Horizons to decide whether to replace it with more of the same or to construct an actual building for the students.
New Horizons Executive Director J. Joseph Johnson said the special education program caters to students who have autism and to those who have emotional disorders. In both cases, these students cannot be served with the services that exist within their school divisions. By consolidating their classroom space in a centralized location, local school divisions are able to pool their resources instead of looking at costly alternatives.
“We want to provide the same level of education for all students, and that includes those with intensive therapeutic and learning needs,” Johnson said. “For the parents and for the students, it’s very meaningful.”
In addition to classroom space, the special education center offers occupational, speech and recreational therapy services.
The new building would offer 52,000-square feet of space for a student body that has grown from around 100 in 1993 to more than 250. A May 28 memo from Johnson said the building is estimated to cost around $10.3 million, which would be funded in part by school divisions and likely in part by the state.
“I’m surprised this is all they’re asking for for square footage,” said York County School Board Vice Chairman Mark Medford. “They’ve needed to [build a new building] for quite some time.”
New Horizons funds its operations by charging tuition for each student to school divisions that use its services. In the funding scheme presented to the school boards, York would be looking at an additional cost of $24,461 per year after state reimbursement for the cost of constructing the new building for the next 20 years starting in 2014. Williamsburg-James City County Schools would have an additional cost of $34,098 per year.
Johnson said the increased cost would not be a part of the recently passed budgets for the 2013-2014 school year. If the school boards all agree to the proposal, the extra cost would begin to appear in the budget for the 2014-2015 school year.
A timeline included in Johnson’s memorandum said the hope is all the school boards will approve of the project by Aug. 1. If that happens, the timeline shows August 2015 as the scheduled time for completion of the building.
The York County School Division and Williamsburg-James City County Schools each send about 20 students to the center for special education, resulting in projected fiscal year 2014 contributions of $608,000 from York and $856,000 from Williamsburg-James City for tuition in addition to the funds necessary for building construction. Despite having around the same number of students, Williamsburg-James City has more autistic students, who require more services and a higher tuition rate.
“If you have any doubts about the needs of this facility, I invite anyone to go to [New Horizons] and I’ll go with you and walk through those trailers,” said York County School Board Member R. Page Minter. “It wouldn’t take long.”
Minter called the project a “no-brainer” at a Monday school board work session, echoing the sentiment of other York County School Board members.
“We want equity across the spectrum for every student in York County, and this is a particular area we need to support,” said York County School Board Member Robert George.
New Horizons is jointly operated by the peninsula school divisions and Gloucester. In addition to the special education center, it is comprised of a career and technical education center, a center for apprenticeship and adult training, the governor’s school for science and technology, and a family counseling center.