A significant change in special-needs students caught the province by surprise this year -- and left school divisions to pick up the tab.
Spending on special-needs education continues to be the biggest growth area in public education, well above four per cent in 2012-13, yet provincial grants to school divisions for supporting special-needs students have dropped.
They didn't drop as a percentage increase -- they dropped in actual dollars. The province is providing $157.5 million for special-needs programming this school year, but that's $1.4 million less than last year, despite continuing significant growth in demand.
"The spending shows a slight decrease -- that was a bit surprising," said deputy education minister Gerald Farthing.
Farthing said while there are far more children being diagnosed as special needs, fewer of them are Level 2, the designation for students who work with a paraprofessional for part of the school day, or share an educational assistant or teacher's aide with other students for the entire day.
Level 3 students have a full-time aide, while Level 1 students have programming and resources, but no aide.
"The trend with special education is for those costs to go up more than other costs," Farthing said. "There is more incidence of autism, more incidence of emotional problems.
"We found there are fewer Level 2 kids; that's good news. Maybe things are plateauing a bit," said the deputy minister.
"There are more Level 1 kids -- that's not such good news. It means more kids need help intermittently."
Elsewhere in the $2-billion-plus provincial school budget, lower raises for teachers "obviously would have an impact," said Farthing.
"The minister did say to school divisions, 'Keep your expenditures down as much as possible.' The numbers you see reflect a collective way to improve education in a prudent way," he said.
Manitoba Teachers' Society president Paul Olson said trustees need to ensure kids get the education they need, while paying for it is secondary.
"Their first imperative is to make sure they're meeting the educational obligations. Make sure you do that first, then figure out how to finance it," Olson said.
"The expenditure changes are not huge. It's reflective of every year getting more expensive to operate our schools," said Carolyn Duhamel, executive director of the Manitoba School Boards Association.
Slowing down the rate of increase is both teachers' raises being less, and, she said, "There's no doubt the divisions are counting their pennies.
"The reality is, our student population is becoming more and more diverse. That is a struggle for school boards. They're doing what they can, they'd like to do more -- there are limits to resources."
Compared to the deep cuts in public education elsewhere in Canada, Duhamel said, "We're fairly comfortable with what we've got here in Manitoba."
-- Nick Martin