District hopes to regain losses due to special needs audit

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Nanaimo school district staff are working to recover some of the money – and special needs support – lost following an audit of special needs services by Education Ministry staff earlier this year.

Ministry staff came to the district in February and reviewed the files of about 1,600 students designated special needs. The ministry gives the district extra money to support some of these students.

Following the review, about 100 students were either de-designated or their status changed, said Bob Esliger, district principal of student support services. As a result, the ministry pulled about $600,000 in funding for special needs students.

Some of those students still need the extra support, said Esliger, but their designation was revoked because they were placed in the wrong category or a piece of evidence was not in the file.

“We’re losing about 30 EAs [education assistants] due to loss of designated students,” said Donna Reimer, school district spokeswoman. “They’re still the same students, with the same need for support, it’s just that they don’t qualify because of the ministry guidelines.”

The majority of the losses are due to schools putting students in the wrong designation category, said Esliger.

Schools put some students with mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, anxiety and depression in the chronic health category when they should have been in the intensive behaviour and serious mental illness category.

Education Ministry guidelines are clear, he added, but schools put the students in the chronic health category because those students get more resources.

“They were out to get as much resources for the kids as possible,” said Esliger. “There’s no fault with that thinking.”

In other cases, student files were missing information, he said, such as an updated or followup doctor’s letter.

Esliger said a few of the students who were getting support no longer qualified.

He isn’t sure how many students might be able to get their designations reinstated, but schools are working to get the necessary paperwork together.

“Right now schools are working hard to get that documentation,” he said. “[The audit] really refreshed for us the evidence needed. So we’re on top of our game again.”

Ron Farino, president of Cupe local 606, the union that represents the school district’s support workers, said workloads are going to increase exponentially for the remaining EAs next fall and the losses could mean classroom disruptions and more pressure on support workers and teachers.

“It’s going to increase the demands on EAs that are already maxed out as well as on teachers,” he said. “I’m also hearing that EAs may be seeking work elsewhere in anticipation of a tougher situation this fall.”

The union will lobby the district to spend the $312,000 it received recently from the province, which is being carried over to the fall as an unrestricted surplus, on reinstating some of the supports lost, said Farino.