Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Special-needs spending soars in Manitoba school divisions

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THIS is a good time to be looking for a job as a teacher's aide in Manitobas public schools.

Spending on special-needs students has soared again during the 2011-2012 school year, by far the fastest-growing part of the provinces $1.96-billion system.

The annual FRAME report -- Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education -- shows more than one dollar in four of the $74.9-million increase in spending over the previous school year goes to student support services.

That budget has gone up 5.6 per cent, compared to an overall spending increase of 3.97 per cent throughout the entire system.

The cost of placing special-needs students into regular classrooms is up 19.6 per cent.

"We do recognize the increase in educational assistants," Manitoba School Boards Association president Robert Rivard said Monday. "It's always been recognized that in a lot of areas it's been underfunded for years."

Hiring of classroom aides -- known variously as teacher's aides, educational assistants, or paraprofessionals -- has increased sharply in recent years, driven by a combination of improved programming and resources for special-needs students and more students being identified with special needs.

Meanwhile, regular instruction in English and French, as well as basic operations and maintenance, have dropped as a percentage of the overall operating budget.

"The discussion is always there -- when do you spend the dollars on EAs or TAs, or on teachers?" said Rivard, a trustee in the Seine River School Division.

"It's well-known that teachers cost more money," he said, but aides provide supervision, and teachers provide learning, to special-needs children.

Property taxes set last March have gone up only 1.9 per cent, the lowest increase in three decades, thanks to all but four school boards freezing taxes in return for an enormous increase in the provinces tax-incentive grants.

Only Brandon, Portage la Prairie, Turtle Mountain in the Killarney and Boissevain areas, and Morden-based Western turned down the grants in favour of education property tax increases.

Tax-incentive grant payments have reached $61.4 million, a jump of 54.7 per cent over the amount Education Minister Nancy Allan paid out to school boards the year before as an inducement to freeze property taxes.

"We don't think it's the right way to fund education," Rivard said, comparing the trade-off to a contract negotiation. "Wed like to see it as part of the (funding) formula, rather than outside the formula."

Analysis of the FRAME data shows salaries and benefits make up 82.7 per cent of the operating budget, of which teachers are by far the largest employee group.

Money paid out in salaries is up 4.3 per cent, and in benefits by 4.5 per cent.

The 2011-2012 Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education report is available at http://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/finance/frame_report/index.html

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca;

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 3, 2012 A4

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