Budget surplus might help special needs students

District considering summer clinics for psycho-educational assessments as it mulls what to do with projected $2.5 million surplus

School District 43 could have as much as $2.5 million extra in the bank at the end of the school year and some of the money could be used to help students with special learning needs if plans go ahead to provide a summer clinic for psycho-educational assessments.

The board was told at its meeting Tuesday a surplus of between 1% and 1.5% of the budget is likely at the end of the school year and district staff are considering the costs and benefits of providing a summer clinic to do assessments to cut waiting lists for services needed by students with learning disabilities.

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Plans aren't finalized because school psychologists, whose numbers were cut last year, need to agree to work in the summer and some would rather see more staffing in the school year rather than just during the vacation, the board was told.

Nevertheless, the summer clinic was one idea for spending the extra funds, which have come from a variety of sources, including higher-than-expected international education student enrolment, lower utility costs, extra money from the province when spring enrolment was confirmed, and investment income.

Setting aside some one-time funding to deal with the waiting list for psycho-ed. assessments appealed to board chair Judy Shirra.

"Psych assessments, I feel, are critical to our students and our families. If they don't have identification, [schools] are struggling on how to best serve some students," said the Port Coquitlam trustee.

Providing a summer clinic follows cuts made last spring to three school psychologist positions, which prompted an outcry from teachers who said waiting lists were growing because fewer tests could be done and more students were struggling without extra resources.

But on Tuesday, student services manager Paul McNaughton said students are still getting extra help at school even without psycho-ed. testing.

Meanwhile, news of the surplus comes as a bit of a surprise to Coquitlam Teachers' Association president Charley King, who said the money is the result of bad planning and shows the district didn't need to make such deep cuts last year.

"It's money that has come at the expense of students this year," King said.

He also said he doesn't want to see the district parcel out the money over three years, as staff are recommending. Instead, King wants the $2.5 million put into the classroom in September.

"If they want to maximize the effect of that money they need to put it all in next year," he said.

But board staff want the funds used to smooth out bumps in future budgets and to hire teachers to address classroom pressures that arise when students come to the district mid-year.

Trustees will decide on which direction to go at a special board meeting Tuesday, June 9 at 6 p.m. at the board office.

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