Boards lobby for increased special-ed funding

TheGlobeandMail.com – National – Ten of Ontario’s largest school boards have appealed to the province to take into account the increasing incidence of students with complex physical and mental health needs.
Published on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010.  Last updated on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010.  KATE HAMMER, EDUCATION REPORTER

Ten of Ontario’s largest school boards have appealed to the province to change the way it funds special education by taking into account the increasing incidence of students with complex physical and mental health needs.

The boards recently sent a letter to the Ministry of Education to make their plea: “The current funding formula for special education needs revision and a timely transparent process to address the growing demands,” it reads.

Overall enrolment at the province’s largest board, the Toronto District School Board, has declined 5.4 per cent over the past four years, while the number of students with special needs has increased by 16 per cent.

This imbalance has created a special-education budget shortfall, staff say, partly because much of the province’s funding is based on total head count.

The TDSB says it operates its special education programs at a $20-million loss, which would more than cover the $17-million projected deficit in its budget for the 2009-2010 school year.

“The province’s funding model underestimates the count of special needs students and the complexity of their needs,” said Karen Forbes, senior superintendent of special education for the TDSB.

Funding for special education at the Peel District School Board is expected to fall $16-million short of costs this year, according to Carla Kisko, associate director of operational support services.

“The services need to be in place to support these students; it’s not an option,” she said. “… But it’s really difficult because there’s always a lag” between funding models and incidence rates.

A shortfall, in terms of special education, can leave students waiting months for special needs assessments.

Rebecca Rycroft, a member of the TDSB’s special education advisory committee, said regular visits from a special needs assistant used to benefit her hearing-impaired son, Nicolas, but that the teacher support was stopped this year.

“We hear often how we can’t do the things we need to do because there isn’t any money” she said.

Patricia MacNeil, a spokeswoman for the ministry, said that funding for special education had increased by $2.5-billion since the 2002-2003 school year.

“The reality is there’s much more money in the system,” she said.

Reached late yesterday, Ms. MacNeil said she couldn’t speak about specific grants the TDSB listed as reduced.

The TDSB maintains that it will receive $20-million less in special education this year than it did in the 2005-06 school year, and serve 5,200, or 16 per cent more students.

Better diagnostics and the availability of leading health facilities in the GTA have been suggested as possible reasons, for example, that the number of TDSB students diagnosed with autism has climbed to 1,367 from 735 over the past four years.

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