Due to an unexpected increase in its special education population during the 2019-20 school year, Lake Travis ISD officials have taken measures to bolster staff recruitment that are primarily focused on employee compensation.

While drafting the 2019-20 budget, staffing allocations were determined based on an estimated 12% student growth, but the actual increase ended up being closer to 29%, according to district information.

That jump sparked concern among district board members and staff, and officials took action during a Feb. 19 LTISD board meeting.

Lisa Mink, a district special education case manager and teacher, expressed her worries regarding the high number of students under the department’s care, stating while she loves her job, her caseload is high.

“If we want to continue to implement [Individualized Education Programs] to the full and legal extent with fidelity, we’re going to need additional personnel units in the special education department,” Mink said, adding that unmanageable caseloads 'take out the I in IEP, individualized.'”

The increases prompted the board of trustees to unanimously approve a budget provision Feb. 19 for the addition of three full-time or equivalent staff members for the special education department.

Previous allocations for additional staff were approved by the board in October, according to Johnny Hill, assistant superintendent for business, financial and auxiliary services, who said the department’s continued growth has created the need for increased instructors.

The exact budget implications would depend on turnover and the number of staff hired, Hill said, describing the expense as minimal and estimating the total costs could range from about $20,000 to $40,000.

Attracting staff members presents its own set of challenges, and districts nationwide are experiencing shortages in special education professionals, according to information from LTISD. Ninety-eight percent of U.S. school districts have reported deficits in special education staff, as stated by a study from the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education.

To combat this nationwide struggle, the board approved a competitive sign-on bonus for special education staff.

The bonuses were approved in an attempt to create a greater recruitment incentive for prospective hires, Hill said. The largest bonus will be allocated to professional positions including special education teachers and speech and language pathologists. Paraprofessionals, which include aides, will receive a bonus of $700.

The bonus rates were compared to those of Austin ISD, which provides $1,500 for professional staff and $500 for paraprofessionals.

Board member Lauren White pointed out during the meeting retention of special education staff has been a challenge for LTISD, as it has for many other districts.

Hill said the district is in the process of examining retention of special education staff, and the information will be discussed in coming months.

“We have had vacant positions from the beginning of the year until right now,” Hill said, adding that as of the Feb. 19 meeting a total of 10 positions remain open within the special education department.