Mental health, special ed needs on the rise in Dallastown

Students look on as Ashton Whitmoyer, of York College, addresses a group of female students about Digital Citizenship during one of six informative sessions held during Think About It Day, at Dallastown Area Middle School, in York Township, Tuesday, March 26, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

With a growing number of students requiring special education, Dallastown Area School District might have to adjust its staffing to meet demand, officials said.

Dallastown has the second-highest number of special education students in York County — 1,254 including in-district and outside placements. York City has 1,378.

"We're up almost 100 students from where we were from last year," said district special education director Brett Frey during a department overview at a special board workshop Thursday, Sept. 19.

"When the inn's full, what do we do?" said board member Michael Noll Jr., asking how to save space when both the regular and special education populations are approaching capacity.

Enrollment numbers have been climbing since the 2012-13 school year, and with 17.9% of its student population in special education, Dallastown is slightly above the state average, he said.

"You're really talking about a space issue," said Assistant Superintendent Joshua Doll —who will be the new superintendent in January. As a member of Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12, the district now houses four more LIU classrooms than recommended, he said.

More:Dallastown Area board promotes assistant to district superintendent

Assistant Superintendent Joshua Doll will succeed Ronald Dyer as superintendent of Dallastown Area School District when Dyer retires Jan. 1.

Doll was appointed as incoming superintendent at the school board's June 13 meeting.

Doll said in the next year or two, the district might have to push some of those programs out. It's also conducting a feasibility study looking at enrollment.

"It appears that our special ed population is growing at a much faster rate than our overall student population," said board President Ronald Blevins to Frey. "Do you feel that we're a magnet?"

Dallastown stands out as one of the sought-after districts families talk about when considering a move, said Amy Kostoff, the assistant director of special education.

Its affordable housing and central location near the Maryland state line is a draw, and Dallastown is known among families connected to the special education community for its strong programming, she said.

"Mental health needs are on the rise," Frey said. "We're seeing an increase of mental health needs within our schools — behavioral and developmental needs."

Despite its growing special education population, the district has been able to save on program costs compared to LIU-run programs, for an estimated savings of about $3.9 million annually, Frey said.

For example, its biggest cost driver is emotional support programs, which cost about $3.5 million at the LIU versus about $1.02 million at the district.

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According to the district's LIU bill as of Aug. 1, it's about $300 a day to educate a student outside of Dallastown, and 92% of the student population is educated within the district — either in a district program or LIU class, Frey said.

Through initiatives such as a new K-6 behavioral intervention program, he said, the district is able to provide interventions before students are given outside placements in the LIU or alternative education provider River Rock Academy.

While offering these programs in-house saves money, Frey said, the challenges are having enough resources and staff for specialized programs.

Though not necessarily an issue right now, as population continues to grow, the department will need additional resources, which could mean just extra training provided, he said.

Board member Sue Heistand acknowledged the struggle of finding new hires at the LIU, and Frey confirmed it was an issue at the district as well.

Kurt Rohrbaugh, the district's director of business operations, said bringing needed positions and cost savings to the board early in the budget process is something administrators have done in the past and helps provide enough time to plan.