Cody Ellison is less than two weeks away from graduating from Sanderson High School in Raleigh, but he admits it wouldn't have happened without the support of teachers who've helped him overcome significant hearing and vision loss.
Ellison, 18, has received special-education services from a dozen different specialists in the Wake County school system since he was 3 years old. Lisa Ellison, Cody's mother, says she's worried what will happen to students if the school system is unable to get $8 million more from the county this year to maintain current levels of service for special-education students.
"They make a difference, and I'm really scared as to what might happen if the school doesn't get the funding that they need," Lisa Ellison said Wednesday. "There's going to be some kids suffering, and they're going to be a burden on society."
The school board is asking for a $58.9 million local budget increase this year. The Wake County Board of Commissioners is considering whether to give more than the $30.1 million school funding increase recommended by County Manager David Ellis.
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Commissioners could adopt the budget Monday.
School officials say $48 million of the increase is needed to maintain current services, including for special education.
During the recession in 2009, the school district received a large federal grant to help fund special education. School officials say they used the grant money and reimbursement of state Medicaid funds to hire and retain staff while putting as much money as possible into reserves to keep the money going for as long as possible.
But the district says that the reserves are gone at a time when Wake has more than 20,000 special education students.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of students who have very, very complex needs and we’re required to provide services for everybody," said Karen Hamilton, Wake's assistant superintendent of special education services.
Some students require a full-time nurse, which Hamilton says costs $36,000 a person. She said some students might require more than $80,000 a year in special education services.
The district says it needs $8 million more from the county this year to pay for 87 special-education employees. School leaders say they're relying on the county because state funding for special education has been stagnant.
To show how the current money is being used, school leaders point to success stories such as Cody Ellison.
Lisa Ellison says Cody was born 6 weeks premature but they weren't able to conclusively determine he had moderate to severe hearing loss until he was 2.5 years old. Ellison contacted the school district, which enrolled Cody in a preschool program where he got extra help due to his hearing loss.
Lisa Ellison credits the specialists with helping her realize all the things Cody would need to learn to compensate for his hearing issues. She said the special-education specialists are helping children fit into society so they won't become a burden.
"Special services made his life normal," Ellison said.
Lisa Ellison said she thought that they might no longer need the extra help until 2016, when Cody was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome, a condition that will over time probably cause him to lose all of his vision.
Heather Livingstone, who teaches visually impaired students at Sanderson, has spent the past two years helping Cody develop the skills he'll need after graduation. She said they promote the idea of independence to the visually impaired students.
"Your visual impairment is a part of you," Livingstone said. "It's not the only thing that describes you. It's not something that's going to be used as an excuse or hold you back from anything. Where there's a will, there's a way."
Cody is a member of Sanderson's Air Force Junior ROTC drill team, but his mother says that you wouldn't notice that he has hearing or vision issues as he twirls his rifle.
Elizabeth London remained in touch with the family after being Cody's hearing impairment teacher at Lead Mine Elementary School. She's one of Cody's guests at his graduation ceremony before he enrolls at East Carolina University in the fall.
"I knew he was going to make it far," London said. "The fact that he's going to college is just icing on the cake. With all the obstacles he's had in life that he's headed to college is just amazing."
Cody plans to study accounting at ECU since he realizes that his prior ambitions of being in the military or a nurse aren't viable due to his vision loss. But Cody says there are times he didn't think he would have gotten past middle school without all the support he received from the special-education specialists.
"People with disabilities, whether it's hearing impairment or low vision, they need assistive technology," he said. "They need people, teachers, supporters to help them make it through."