Students with disabilities and mental health problems will wait longer for specialist help after a planned reduction in funding across the province, say parents and educators.
This year, $3.6 million that once paid for school divisions, health-care workers, and social workers to collaborate will be redirected to help fulfil a $50-million provincial government promise to reduce school fees.
"I would say almost any of the other options would have been better than cutting our most vulnerable students out of the supports that they need," said Chinook's Edge School Division superintendent Kurt Sacher. "And it's not just the most vulnerable students this affects."
At issue is a program called the Regional Collaborative Services Delivery model. Since 2014, it gives school-age children better access to health care and social services workers.
It has led to more help in classrooms for visually-impaired and hearing impaired students, and quicker responses to students with mental-health problems, among other challenges.
When the program began, professionals in central Alberta told the government the money being offered to bolster those services wasn't enough, said Stu Henry, superintendent of Red Deer Public Schools. The government responded by adding three years of "transition funding" that was scheduled to come to an end in 2017.
In the 2017-18 provincial budget, Alberta Education is spending $66.9 million on the services, which is a five per cent drop from last year when nine of the 16 regions still had top-up funds.
The nine school districts in the central Alberta region will receive $1 million less next year, which is about a 16 per cent drop in funding, said Henry. The region will likely lose a speech language assistant, and students and teachers will wait longer for help, training, and professional advice, he said.
Already disadvantaged students will have a harder time catching up to their peers, he said. About 11 per cent of students in the school division have mild to severe disabilities or extra needs.
"I hardly ever criticize the government, their decision making. I think they've got a difficult job," Henry said. "But this one just doesn't sit well with me. It seems like it's the wrong group to be cutting from."
Speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, and psychologists have helped eight-year-old Matea Schurman make great strides in improving her communication skills, said her mother Jessica Schurman. Matea, who is in Grade 2 at Red Deer's Annie L. Gaetz School, has autism, and didn't speak at all until about a year ago. She often uses an iPad to communicate during class.
Speech language pathologists are building up Matea's vocabulary and helping improve her interactions with classmates, Schurman said. Occupational therapists improve her struggles using pens and scissors, and help teachers adapt lessons for her. A psychologist works with her with sensitivity to sounds and crowds, and helps staff understand and cope with her emotional outbursts.
Teachers are already spread so thin, the funding decrease worries Schurman, who calls it "heartbreaking."
"It’s really, really upsetting, especially when I look at what the provincial government is doing with the free lunch program, free breakfast programs, and $25-a-day daycare," she said.
She worries if her daughter's ability to communicate with her classmates begins to deteriorate, the sense of inclusion she feels now will slip away.
No room in tight budget
Red Deer Public School Board chairwoman Bev Manning said she'd rather see more money come to the school board with no strings attached, rather than losing money earmarked for students with disabilities, while gaining cash to cover school fees — which are already low in the division.
"It's extremely frustrating to us. These our are most vulnerable students who really need these services," she said.
With deficit budgets that keep dipping into the division's dwindling reserves, there's little money to redirect from other programs to keep health services in tact, she said.
Lindsay Harvey, press secretary to Education Minister David Eggen, said school boards have always known the extra funding would end in 2017.
"Since Budget 2017 did not include RCSD transition funding, it is the region’s responsibility to plan and adjust service levels to work within a budget that does not include this transitional funding," she said in an email.
"It is important to note that transition funding was provided to these regions to assist with addressing any gaps that the new funding model may have created if implemented without a transition period."