Group upset with New West layoffs to SEAs

Inclusion BC has blasted the New Westminster school district’s decision to eliminate 27 special education assistant (SEA) positions to help balance its 2013-14 budget.

Faith Bodnar, executive director of the organization that advocates for people with developmental disabilities, said New Westminster’s actions, along with decisions made by the Coquitlam and Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows school districts, raise questions about the right to have a quality education for children with special needs.

“Whenever I see cuts like this, it’s very, very concerning. We don’t have enough support right now. We need to be providing support and not be taking it away,” said Bodnar on Wednesday.

The New Westminster board of education recently approved cuts to more than 40 full-time positions, including the SEAs, to cover an expected shortfall of $3.5 million for the upcoming school year.

The majority of New Westminster’s cuts, Bodnar said, directly and disproportionately target students with special needs. She’s worried such actions could signal a return to segregated education instead of the integrated programs that have been developed.

“That would be a huge, huge loss and put us back 25 years for special education kids,” said Bodnar. “We should have much higher expectations for our children in our schools, and that’s unacceptable.”

Bodnar questions what other programs could have been cut back since she considers special education to be basically core education.

“I have a lot of very serious questions about why these positions are being targeted,” said Bodnar. “Are we sure there’s something else that wasn’t cut [that could be]?”

Bodnar said she is well aware of the pressures placed on school districts the last few years, but “we should be very loathe to make cuts to helping teachers meet the needs of students, not just in New Westminster, but the province. They should not be the first on the chopping block.”

Bodnar pointed out a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling on a British Columbia case ruled adequate special education “is not a dispensable luxury.” The court, she said, found severe financial pressures is not a reason to deny access to education for students with special needs.

Board trustee Lisa Graham, who has a special needs son educated in the New Westminster public school system, opposed the special needs staff cuts.

“I don’t know how you can cut that many because the number of students won’t drop,” said Graham. “The kids we have to worry about are the grey-area kids, the ones without a diagnosis but we know require support … It’s going to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to deliver a program without adequate support in place for each of our students.”

Graham believes the board should be looking at cutting or eliminating district programs instead.

“The cuts we’re making are not unlike the ones we’ve made in the past and unless we do something constructive we’re going to be sitting here next year doing the same,” said Graham, noting programs such as international baccalaureate and alternate programs should be considered instead. “Why are we not looking at programs?”

Graham said she has long called for special needs funding to be indexed so it doesn’t fall behind other areas of education and districts don’t reach critical deficit situations.

“That’s a key thing that should have happened years ago, and historically it doesn’t matter who is in government in Victoria, whether its the Liberals or the NDP, special needs children have never been given a fair shake,” said Graham, who noted she first ran for trustee because the New Democratic government of the 1990s wasn’t dealing with special needs.

Trustee MaryAnn Mortensen said it is too late in the year to start discussing cutting a program because proper public consultation would need to be done.

“We’re challenged. The most recent staff adjustments, while I’m not in favour of essentially gutting special education, are now in line with the rest of the province. That goes to show you the model of criteria for funding needs to change and the funding needs to change,” said Mortensen.

She added the situation highlights the need for the district to determine what services it should be providing as part of its core mandate. She said IB, alternate, Montessori and even French immersion could be considered by some as not being part of the mandate, although others might argue otherwise. By not determining what the core mandate is, she said, the board is left looking for dollars to dump to balance the budget.

“You end up with decisions being made in crisis,” said Mortensen.

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