Special needs students budget lacking, says MLA

The provincial government won't give money to ease crowded school rooms and assist special needs students, says Skeena's NDP MLA.

THERE’S NO way the provincial government is going to put up the kind of money needed to ease crowded school rooms and assist special needs students, says Skeena NDP MLA Robin Austin.

Negotiations between the province and teachers, which have not been going well, will likely end in the province legislating an agreement this spring, he said last week.

Austin says the $30 million this year and $65 million a year in the next two years the province is so far willing to commit to class size and special needs students won’t come close to what’s needed.

“Let’s not forget the province took out $275 million [from classrooms] already,” said Austin of the consequences of earlier legislation which removed class size and classroom makeup from the list of items teachers could negotiate.

“The money they now want to put back in is simply inadequate to what’s needed.”

The province and teachers are trying to reach a deal on two issues by April to meet conditions set down by a BC Supreme Court justice who found the province wrongly took class size and composition out of items teachers could negotiate.

What’s worse is that $7.5 million of the first year’s $30 million is to be spent paying special needs assistants for work they are now doing voluntarily, Austin continued.

“What all this is going to do is cause huge fights all over BC between those who feel they should get the little money that’s being provided,” said Austin.

He noted that the need for more money for special needs students is higher in the north in general than in the rest of BC.

In the Coast Mountains school district alone, said Austin, the special needs student population is twice the provincial average.

He pointed out that a special needs student isn’t necessarily one that has an educational handicap.

“It may be that a student simply doesn’t learn in a more structured environment or one that is better suited to learning on their own,” said Austin.

He’s predicting a stormy session of the spring legislative session if the provincial government tries to legislate a settlement.

“We’re going to fight this with every tool and every effort we can in the House,” said Austin.

Austin was less emphatic on the other major issue facing the province and teachers – negotiating overall wage increases.

The province has told teachers there is no money for wage increases, a position it has taken with every other public sector union in its jurisdiction,  while the teachers want three per cent a year for three years and benefit increases.

“That’s really up to the teachers to argue for themselves,” said Austin of the wage increase issue.

He acknowledged that while taxpayers may back calls for smaller classes and more special needs services, there isn’t much appetite to support teachers’ demands for wage increases.