British Columbia

Special education enrolment penalty cuts $229K from Kootenay school district budget

A B.C. school district is calling the provincial government’s rule on funding for special education enrolment too strict and harmful for students who need the extra support.

The Kootenay-Columbia school district had had to cut $1.4 M from its budget this year

Darrel Ganzert, chair of the Kootenay-Columbia board of education, says the school district has no plans to cut any children from special education programs despite funding shortfalls. (iStock)

A B.C. school district is calling the provincial government's rule on funding for special education enrolment too strict and harmful for students who need the extra support.

In the spring of 2015, the B.C. government slapped a $229,000 penalty on the Kootenay-Columbia school district after an external audit found the district enrolled children in special education classes who did not qualify.

This penalty is contributing to the $1.3 million the Kootenay-Columbia school district has had to cut from its $42 million budget. But the school district says the rules on who qualifies for special education are too "strict" and effectively freeze out children who need the extra support.

"There are children who require the help, regardless of what the government says and we believe we owe that to the children to provide the service to them in spite of the fact that the government doesn't recognize that they need that help," said Darrel Ganzert, chair of the Kootenay-Columbia board of education.

In an email to CBC, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Education said,

"The Ministry funds school districts based on data submitted to the ministry by the school district. The special education audit determined that the district reported 16 students in various categories when in fact — they did not meet the criteria for the reported classification. It is the responsibility of school districts to ensure compliance with the School Act and program policies."

The Ministry of Education confirmed to CBC it recovered $229,000 from the Kootenay-Columbia school district as a result of a compliance audit.

Who qualifies for special education enrolment

The difference in opinion lies in who and how many children can qualify for special education.

According to the B.C. Ministry of Education website, special needs students are defined as:

"Students ... [who] have disabilities of an intellectual, physical, sensory, emotional, or behavioural nature, or have a learning disability or have exceptional gifts or talents."

But the specific rules for school districts are based on averages across the province, says Ganzert. If a school district enrolls an irregular or unusual amount of children in special education, the province will take a closer look, according to Ganzert. That's what happened in this case, he said.

Ganzert says if the Kootenay-Columbia district followed the B.C. government's funding rules, there would be eight to 10 children kicked out of special education programs in the region, which has 10 schools.

But he says the school district plans to keep those children in special education programs regardless of the funding shortfall.

"What we decided to do was … scrape together the money because those children need that support."

'Cutting our fingers and our toes off'

The financial hit to Kootenay-Columbia is two-fold. It paid the $229,000 penalty to the provincial government from a reserve fund and it now needs to find another $229,000 to continue funding special education resources for the children it refuses to take out of special education programs.

"We still want to serve those same children. They were admitted to our program because of need," said Ganzert. "We have to come up with the $250,000 [actually $229,000] again to sustain those children in the special needs program."

He says the B.C. government's rules are not flexible enough to allow for the differences found in each district. And it's the students who suffer as a result.

"The entire funding issue in the public education system is disgraceful in my opinion. The government is choosing to underfund public education and children's career potential is being impacted by that."

The $229,000 makes up a small part of the district's $42 million budget, but when added to the other government- mandated cost-saving initiatives, like the administrative-savings program, it becomes too much says Ganzert.

"We're now cutting our fingers and our toes off. There is nothing left to cut that is not of utmost importance."

To listen to the full audio, click the link labelled: Kooteny-Columbia school district docked $229,000 for breaking special education enrolment rules.

With files from Wanyee Li


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