Special education report reveals funding challenges

Chilliwack school district overspends by 42 per cent on special education, a "not unusual" situation, according to a recent report.

The Chilliwack school district is stretching resources and doing its best to ensure children with special needs receive the support they require, says a recent report. But there is no clear solution for raising the necessary funds to improve services.

Independent consultant Dr. David Carter presented the final results of his review of special education in the district at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

The report has been nine months in the making. Said parent Don Davis: “It’s about time.”

More than 30 parents and school staff came out to hear the results of the review, which are based on Carter’s visit to all but one district school, 82 individual parent interviews, and 291 parent surveys.

Just over nine per cent of Chilliwack’s students, 1,223 in total, are listed as having a disability, ranging from physical challenges, to intellectual and mental, to behavioural. The provincial average is 10 per cent. Of all categories, Carter found that autistic students present the biggest challenge, and that people are “unhappy more often around autism than any other category.”

Local education assistant Kathi Friesen told the board on Tuesday that staff training related to autism is lacking.

“It’s frustrating, especially around autism, where a classroom teacher has had no education around autism,” she says. “I’m very concerned about the people we are hiring as EAs. I’m one of them…I was not trained in anything specific to the job.”

This is especially important as EAs are increasingly doing the brunt of the work teaching special needs students, she says. Overall, Friesen was “thrilled” with Carter’s report and recommendations, and believes that he took people’s concerns seriously.

The district has about half the provincial average of students categorized as having serious mental illness or requiring intense behaviour intervention (category ‘H’) – a figure that has been declining. Although the district follows related Ministry of Education procedures closely, Carter noted that it may not have claimed all possible ‘H’ students, which would generate “discreet funding.”

Some parents feel that category H students draw services away from others, writes Carter in the report, and others feel that the funding that their child generated should be spent on their child alone. This, Carter explains, is a common misconception. One way to look at it is that children receiving less now, may receive above and beyond in the future if their illness progresses and they require more support.

The Chilliwack district spends almost 42 per cent more on special education than it receives from the province, which Carter says is “not unusual,” and in fact represents “the lower end of the ballpark” among comparative school districts.

Any additional funding must come from somewhere else, Carter said.

Chilliwack Teachers’ Association president Clint Johnston called the funding issue the “elephant in the room” at the meeting. Noble phrases, such as “do more with less,” should not apply to special needs children, he argued. They deserve full funding for the services they need.

If no new funding is entering the district, as the proposed provincial education budget freeze suggests, then district staff are forced to compete for the same shrinking money pool, he said.

“What it essentially does, is that, as a teacher, I can choose to advocate for my students, for my needy learners, or I can choose to advocate for myself. That’s not a choice I want to make. I feel I should be able to ask for a fair raise from my union…and at the same time, I should be able to advocate for more money for special education because I know it’s such a need.”

Among his many recommendations, Carter strongly believes the district should hire additional speech aids, and a full-time psychologist, which would improve services and reduce wait times for assessments. The psychologists “pay for themselves,” Carter said, because they can identify and transfer students to categories that provide additional funding.

He also recommends setting up a special education review working committee to consider the recommendations of the report. But several parents at the school board meeting on Tuesday felt that a parent should be included on the committee.

Overall, Carter found that parents are satisfied with the special education assistance their child receives, and many parents specifically mentioned a school staff member who was very supportive. However, many top comments were negative. The biggest complaint was that individual education plans took too long. Many educational assistants (EA), on their part, said they needed more time to spend with children, and they lacked resources. Teachers also mentioned needing more EA time. Administrators were also very dissatisfied with the slowness of receiving services.

Carter concludes the report: “Chilliwack is a district offering special education services that overall are equal to those seen in most B.C. school districts. This district operates under very tight budget constrains (as do all) and is making careful and thoughtful use of the resources at its disposal.”

The “frustration among staff and parents” is due solely to a situation in which “complex children are included in modern classrooms and resources are very, very tight,” and not to staff or district efforts.

The board toyed with the idea of having an implementation plan set by the end of May, but recognized that realistically, it may not be possible until the beginning of the next school year.

The entire report is available through the Chilliwack school district website.