Local education officials with the region's public school board fear their budget for special education will shrink when changes to the provincial funding model begin to come into effect in September. 

In 2013, the Waterloo Region District School Board received roughly $500 for every student who was identified as having very high needs. Over the next four years, per-student funding will be phased out in favour of a new funding model that estimates the number of students in each board who have high needs and require special education supports. 

Eight students who fall into that category spent the 2013/2014 school year in Michael Beetham's behaviour class at Abraham Erb Public School in Waterloo. It's there that they learn the social skills they require at school.

"A lot of the kids, when they come to us...their behaviour doesn't allow them to stay in school for more than a couple of hours," says Deanna Hurley, one of  two Child and Youth Workers in the class. Without a safe space, she doesn't think these kids would make it through grade school, much less high school.

Twelve-year-old Tanner Mann stepped into the classroom for the first time last fall. He says he was a bully when he arrived, but now, after 10 months with Mr. Beetham, he says he likes to make other kids smile.

"Before, if someone would have called me a name, I would have got into a fight with them. This year, I just walk away and tell the teacher."

Funding model will change in September

In September, the Ministry of Education will begin to change the way it pays for the programs that support students with high needs. Rather than count the number of students who require extra supports, the ministry will use the Special Education Statistical Prediction Model (SESPM) to determine how much money each school board will receive.

SESPM takes into account the demographics of each board, such as the number of families that fall below Statistic Canada's low-income cut-off and the rate of unemployment. In an email statement, the Ministry of Education says there is "a strong correlation between low demographic factors and the prevalence of children with special education needs."

According to the ministry, SESPM will better reflect the needs of each school board and "will provide greater fairness and equity within the system."

"That, to me, is the red flag," said Waterloo Regional District School Board trustee John Hendry when the change was mentioned during a June meeting of the school board.

"If you equalize funding, what you're doing is spreading that money more evenly throughout the province, which means our board could receive a little bit less so that the others could receive a little bit more."

Hendry said the Region of Waterloo has an unusually high number of students with special needs. In the Waterloo Region District School Board alone, he said there are approximately 12,500 students receiving extra supports, 13 per cent more than the provincial average for school boards.

Hendry said it's not clear whether the new funding model will take that into account, and is concerned how much money the board will receive for students with high needs when the new model is completely phased in by 2017.

Province says schools won't lose money

The ministry insists that the new model will "recognize differences among school boards". It also says that, while SESPM will have "distributive impacts," boards will have time to adjust to changes in funding over the four-year phase-in. 

When asked about the new funding model, Education Minister Liz Sandals told CBC News that the province will continue to meet the needs of students with high needs.

"The bulk of the special education money actually is still based on...looking at the number of pupils in the board," she said. It's just the funding model for children with particularly high needs, like those in Beetham's class, that will change. 

The ministry says funding for special education has grown over the past decade. It expects to spend approximately $2.72 billion on special education this year, a 67 per cent increase from 2003.

Staff with the Waterloo Region District School Board say that, over the next four years, they will carefully monitor the money they receive for special education. If funding does drop, they will alert the board, but right now it's too early to say how the changes will affect their bottom line.