Boards decry funding gap for disabled students

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Province, school boards frequently disagree over number of severely disabled students

As a freeze on funding for severely disabled students enters its fourth year, school boards across the province, including St. Albert, are finding creative ways to stretch their resources to provide for students.

Both the St. Albert Protestant Schools and the Greater St. Albert Catholic divisions have not seen an increase in funding for severely disabled students since 2008/09.

Alberta Education has consistently disagreed with local boards on the number of severely disabled students each has in its division, an issue that first emerged in during a 2007 funding review.

That review found province-wide inconsistencies in the way special needs students are coded and assessed, how policy is interpreted and the manner in which students’ administrative files are managed.

“We have more kids in our system that we consider to need extra supports than are funded for,” said Catholic trustee Jacquie Hansen, who is also the president of the Alberta School Boards’ Association.

Since 2008/09, funding for severely disabled students within the Catholic division has remained at $2.5 million. Alberta Education has identified the number of severely disabled at 156, a number that remains steady.

But according to the board’s numbers, that number has actually fluctuated between 180 and 187 over the last three years.

A similar situation has unfolded at the Protestant division. The number of severely disabled students fluctuated between 203 and 220 over the last three years, however the province has only provided funding for 176 students, or $2.9 million.

“According to the province, we have significantly more kids than we should,” said Krimsen Sumners, supervisor of student services. Like other school boards, St. Albert Protestant was also told it was “over-coding” kids, she said.

“The province is saying they’re paying us for 176 [students]but they should only be paying us for 50 per cent of those kids.”

Until now, school boards have relied on Alberta Education’s coding criteria to identify students with mild, moderate (including gifted and talented) and severe disabilities.

“There are very specific criteria that kids have to have in order to be funded and it’s really based on a deficit model,” Hansen said. “It’s sort of labelling kids on what problems they have in order to be funded.”

A student with a mild cognitive disability, for example, might be labelled a code 30 or a code 51 depending on what grade the student is in.

Students considered gifted and talented are given a code 80 while a student with a severe and emotional disability is a code 42.

A student with a severe cognitive disability, code 41, has severe delays in all or most areas of development, and can have physical, sensory, medical and behavioural disabilities that require constant assistance or supervision.

Tony McClellan, director of student services with the Catholic board said the more extensive a student’s needs, the more resources they require.

“The freeze in the severe disabilities profile has made it challenging and it’s required us to be more flexible and creative in maintaining support for our students,” he said.

“We’ve looked at ways of extending the resources we currently have in order to best meet the needs of all of our students, for every student, including those that may have a severe disability.”

Reviewing the model used for identifying students with special needs is one aspect of the province’s Setting the Direction Framework, a wide-ranging plan that initially grew out of the 2007 funding review.

With input from a steering committee of parents, educators and medical experts, the framework aims to improve the special needs education through a more inclusive education system.

In June, the province announced it was moving forward with 12 recommendations from the steering committee, including improved learning and teaching resources and more professional development for teachers.

“The first step in moving towards implementation is the formation of an inclusive education cross-ministry team that brings in Health and Wellness and Child and Youth Services so implementation is taking place from a government perspective as a whole,” said Zoe Cooper, a spokesperson with Alberta Education.

Sumners said she’s been told by the province not to expect a new funding framework until 2012.

“Unless something different happens, they’re really saying that they’re really freezing our funding for another year,” Sumners said.

She also said the funding freeze has made it especially challenging to provide for all students, including those with special needs.

“Costs keep going up, that’s the problem. Costs just keep going up and whether it’s for therapists, supplies, staff, the majority of our [severely disabled]budget really goes towards supporting kids in the classroom so whether it’s teacher aides or along that area,” said Sumners.

“When budgets keep working that way, it just means that there is less money to support the kids in the classroom.”

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