A new way to fund instructional supports in Wolf Creek Public Schools (WCPS) must be found or will be a reduction in those areas this fall.
That is the dire warning from WCPS superintendent Jayson Lovell when it comes to the education of students with the highest level of needs in the district, a population that has risen by almost 50 per cent in the past three years yet without any additional provincial funding to go with it.
“A lot of effort has been put into trying to understand what exactly our profile is, what our needs are and the supports that we provide to our students,” explained Lovell.
“The reality for us is this number represents the most important core challenge that we have as a district.”
WCPS has seen the number of both level 4 (students with the most diverse or special needs) and level 3 (students with mild to moderate diverse learning challenges) students skyrocket in the last four years with more on the way.
In the 2014-15 school year, WCPS saw 457 level 3 students and 249 level 4 students with the projections for this fall sitting at 630 and 462 respectively.
“It’s just such a dramatic increase so quickly and the challenge that we face is the funding for inclusion is block-funded.”
What that means is WCPS is given a defined amount of money for these diverse learning students based on what the province had determined as the school division’s profile.
Over the past several years, Alberta Education has provided WCPS with funding levels running from $5.3 million to the current $5.68 million for diverse learning supports, which includes educational assistants, social workers, inclusion coaches and other instructional aids.
Meanwhile, to maintain educating these high-needs students, WCPS trustees have over the years continued to top-up that funding — effectively doubling the money available for the current school year.
“We have seen very small increases in provincial funding and yet continue to have substantial increases in students that need support,” stated Lovell.
“WCPS is very fortunate that the board has, because of reserves, been able to sustain that funding and that it has always prioritized that level of budget support and they truly should be commended for that.
“However, with school divisions no longer able to compile operational reserves, it’s come to the point where — at the end of this school year — the board is projecting a $750,000 operational reserve out of a $90 million budget. That is not a lot of cushion.”
Lovell noted the board wants to maintain that amount in order to maximize what it allocates to schools, but that leaves very little wiggle room to pay for additional expense, such as needed supports for more level 3 and 4 students.
“(The) reality is right now, we are facing a scenario where WCPS are going to be reducing the overall inclusion allocation in the coming school year,” he said starkly, adding WCPS looks after 22 level 4 students that are in provincially funded group homes.
“These are students with significantly complex needs including addictions, mental health, safety concerns, multiple disabilities and require multiple specialized supports to be successful. That’s an example where these students have arrived and there is no additional funding to support them in our system. We’ve had to manage that within our profile and that has been incredibly challenging and well been the scope of what we can provide.”
Lovell noted the board is well aware of the looming situation and will soon be discussing the 2018-19 budget. However, he added there is no question that cuts to services for high-need students will be included.
WCPS has been working behind the scenes on trying to convince Alberta Education to either provide more money or tweak the funding model to be more representative of what the school division is facing.
However, Lovell added there has been nothing substantive done since.