CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Kanawha County Schools Special Education Curriculum Specialist Rachel Brown says teaching students in self-contained special education classrooms is her passion and that’s the momentum behind her efforts to get the legislature to consider a bill that calls for a pay raise for those teachers and their aides.

Rachel Brown

Brown said the bill, SB 680, would increase pay by 10%. It’s Brown’s hope increased pay will help with recruitment.

“I have been struggling to staff my classrooms (in Kanawha County). I have 66 classrooms that are self-contained and it has been a struggle to find qualified staff for my rooms,” Brown said. “Half of my classrooms are staffed by long-term subs or alternative certification candidates. I’ve had multiple rooms go vacant for a long periods of time.”

Brown said the parents of the students need the respite that school can give them and the children need early intervention. Brown said the job isn’t easy. Most of the students are non-verbal.

“It’s hard when you’re experiencing these extreme behaviors and the stress of not having enough staff in your classroom to really have a normal day,” Brown said.

The bill’s chief sponsor is Senate Education Committee Chair Amy Grady, R-Mason.

“It is an issue and it does need to be addressed.,” Grady told MetroNews. “These teachers have to do some things that regular general education teachers don’t have to do. We’re talking about our self-contained special education teachers. They are dealing with our most vulnerable students.”

Grady and Brown both agree it’s a statewide issue.

The Kanawha County Board of Education approved a $2,000 signing bonus for special education teachers before the current school year but there were no takers.

Why the vacancies?

Some of it can be blamed on the general teacher vacancy issue but there’s also an added factor.

Sen. Amy Grady

Grady and Brown said last year’s passage of the 3rd Grade Success Act which created jobs for classroom aides in regular classrooms to help with reading has caused many special education classroom aides to take the new jobs.

“This (the bill) is a way to try and incentivize them to stay in the classroom and also recognize with our special education teachers that they have a unique job as well,” Grady said.

Brown said the new law has “decimated” the number of aides in the special education classrooms. She said the new jobs are attractive and the duties are different.

“There’s no toileting in (general education) first grade. You’re not expected to experience regular violent outbursts,” Brown said. “That job is considerably easier than a self-contained classroom where you are on camera all day, you experience violence regularly as well as your toileting, your diapering, your tube-feeding. You are working with the most challenging of behaviors.”

Brown said she believes there are teachers and aides out there that would go back to self-contained classrooms for more money.

Aides will be hired for year-two of the 3rd Grade Success Act before next school year for second grade classrooms. Brown said additional special education aides will apply for those jobs.

Does the bill have a chance?

Gov. Jim Justice is already proposing an across-the-board average 5% pay raise for teachers and other state employees. Brown’s 10% bill would also add to the state’s base budget.

Grady said she wants to discuss the bill with the Senate GOP caucus. She said she obviously supports it but doesn’t want to create false hope. She’s not sure if the bill will make the agenda of her own education committee.

“What I would hate to do is put it on the agenda and then knowing it’s not going to be run in Finance (Senate Finance Committee) because it’s not something that is going to be able to be afforded. I don’t want it to be something that’s going to create false hope for somebody,” Grady said.

Brown said she’s thankful for what lawmakers have done in the last few years to improve the safety of special education classrooms and she hopes they now take the next step.

“The legislature has worked very hard to keep our students safe in the self-contained setting with the camera bill and the microphone bill that’s passed in the past couple of years but without staff and trained staff these students aren’t getting a quality education and safety can become an issue if the room is not staffed,” she said.

Special Education Day

Special Education Day is set for Wednesday at the capitol.

“We’re having 300 self-contained special education students come to the capitol. We have a lot of fun things planned,” Brown said.

She also hopes to take the students into the seating areas to watch the House and Senate floor sessions.