$10-million deficit for special education expected due to increased enrolment

The Greater Essex County District School Board offices are shown in a 2022 file photo.  (Chris Ensing/CBC - image credit)
The Greater Essex County District School Board offices are shown in a 2022 file photo. (Chris Ensing/CBC - image credit)

Demand for special education within the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) is growing, and so is the pricetag, with the board estimating its special education budget will fall millions short next year.

The deficit for 2023-24 special education is projected at $10.2 million, according to a preliminary report trustees will see Tuesday previewing the public board's 2023-24 budget, to be presented June 20.

The deficit is largely because of increasing enrolment for special education students — the board expects to enrol more than 200 more students with special education needs next year.

"A significant increase in special education staff (EA and [developmental support worker]) is required due to corresponding increase in student needs," board staff wrote in the report that will go to trustees.

With the increasing number of students and increasing complexity of student needs, staff wrote in the report the board will add 10 GAINS — Giving Attention to Individual Needs — classrooms next year, as well as four STEPS —  Skills to Enhance Personal Success — classrooms in 2023-24.

Those 14 new classrooms will open in September 2023.

The overall budget deficit for the board is expected to be $4.5 million, about one per cent of its operating revenue. The board will fund the deficit through its surplus, which is projected to be more than $23 million by August 2024.

This isn't the first time the board has flagged the increasing needs of the region's special education system.

Last year, board chair Gail Simko-Hatfield wrote to Education Minister Stephen Lecce calling on the province to address "significant underfunding," in a Dec. 15, 2022, letter that said the board expects to spend an additional $5.4 million on special education this year.

"Since the submission of the original budget, the board has seen an increase in the number of students enrolling at the board with complex needs," this letter reads.

Other factors accounting for the board's overall deficit in 2023-24 include supply teacher costs, which staff said have grown to $6.3 million next year. That's up more than $2 million since last year. Maintenance and operations and student transportation also account for part of the increase.

A school board spokesperson said staff declined to comment until after the meeting, while several trustees reached by CBC did not respond to requests for comment.