Special education running out of money

By Rachel Halperin

Centennial Public School is desperate for a physiotherapist,but it can only afford to hire one for two days a week. Centennial’s orthopedic unit cares for children with diseases ranging from cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy to spina bifida.

“We don’t pay enough,” says Lamar Mason, co-chair of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s special education advisory committee.

Mason says the school has spent months looking for a physiotherapist.

Susan Derby, who sits on Centennial’s school council, says the entire school would be affected if its special education programs were reduced. “The physical support is such a big part of who we are … but the sense of cuts just looms over you,” she says.

The problems at Centennial are the result of provincial cutbacks to public education. Special education has already been affected by cuts, but the board warns that without an additional $30 million from the province, things may get worse.

The board’s budget for 2002-2003 won’t be released until next February, but speculators say special education may lose as much as $10 million. That’s roughly one-quarter of its current allowance. Joan Spice, Centretown’s board trustee, explains that school boards aren’t allowed to run deficits. If they don’t have the money to balance their budget, their only option is to cut.

The board used a $20-million emergency fund last year just to make ends meet in the district.

Bill Filleter, co-chair of Elgin Street Public School’s council, is worried about next year’s budget. “There just isn’t another $20 million in the system,” he says.

The board is asking the Ontario government for about $30 million next year. Spice is confident the government will comply but emphasizes the money is essential for them just to stay afloat.

“If we don’t get it, it’s going to be disastrous,” she says.

Provincial standards don’t exist for special education. School boards, not the government, decide how much money these programs will get. So when there isn’t enough money to go around, unregulated programs are vulnerable to budget cuts.

The board has to pay teachers’ salaries. But they don’t have to keep special classes open.

Today, cutbacks to special education are visible in schools. Elgin Street School once offered small specialized classes for students with disabilities. Today students are grouped together regardless of disability, and spend half the day in a special resource centre, the other half in regular classrooms.

Mason is critical of the system, saying regular classrooms can’t provide extra attention students with disabilities require.

“What do we do with these kids the rest of the day? Do we send them home? Make them sit in a corner?”

As schools struggle to support their neediest children, those with minor disabilities are falling through the cracks. More than 3,000 students have been waiting to be tested for learning disabilities since last May. The list continues to grow, with resources too scarce to make any dent in the numbers.

“There’s no fat left in the system,” says Spice.