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Toronto TDSB passes budget that slashes 50 special-ed jobs

A boy walks past Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute in Toronto on Thursday, January 29, 2015.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto District School Board passed next year's budget on Wednesday, cutting more than 250 jobs, including about 50 special education jobs that became a sticking point for trustees during an hour-long soul-searching debate.

The board initially voted down the proposed staff cuts, with trustees saying they were frustrated over the special education dilemma. The entire $3-billion operating budget later passed after trustees voted to save 10 of the jobs in that program.

The full breakdown of the roughly 260 job cuts wasn't available Wednesday night, but the board said they would be achieved with attrition, not layoffs.

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Special education in Toronto faces a funding squeeze in the next few years. It already costs $25-million more than the board receives for it, and the Ontario Education Ministry has promised to cut the TDSB's dedicated special education grant for four consecutive years.

Trustees said Wednesday they were frustrated with the province's silence on how it calculates the funding in that area. Trustee Chris Tonks asked fellow trustees to continue the "measured level of defiance that we seem to maintain around this table" and keep special education staffing where it is, despite of the province's decisions.

The Education Ministry concluded last year that the Toronto schools had been getting more than their share compared with some other parts of Ontario. The reorganization means some boards' special education grants will rise.

Last year, the first of the four years, the province cut $7.3-million from the TDSB's special education grant. However, the ministry hasn't told the board what numbers to expect for the next three years, and it hasn't explained its math beyond saying it is using updated enrolment numbers.

The TDSB staffing plan that was up for debate Wednesday, part of next year's budget, was built around an expected $5-million special education cut and originally proposed cutting 61 special education jobs. Trustees initially voted down the plan after nearly an hour of debate. Later, after restoring 10 of those jobs, they reversed that decision.

The $5-million will remain a guess until Queen's Park announces its budget numbers, but TDSB director Donna Quan told trustees that she thought it was a good estimate based on conversations with the ministry. Last year's cut was the "high water mark," she said.

"Let's not forget that the ministry themselves have a deficit reduction [plan] they're trying to work at," Ms. Quan said.

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Special education includes programs for children with autism and learning disabilities, along with "gifted" programs.

Overall, the demand for those programs has risen hugely in recent years. The ministry's annual grant to the TDSB has gone up more than 36 per cent since 2002-2003, to $334.5-million in the current year, according to the ministry.

The ministry did not respond to a question about the calculations or demographic data that went into the four-year reorganization.

The province has said the overall funding for special education will stay stable. But some trustees speculated about its intentions, saying they believe the ministry is inclined to want to mix special-needs students into regular classes.

"It is my fervent belief that the province is using this as a way of reducing the cost of education, and to do that on the backs of little children is, as everyone in this room feels, completely unacceptable," said trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher.

Others said they want more transparency around the numbers.

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"They truly are not right on this issue," said Mr. Tonks. "Even if we were going to remain status quo, you're never going to convince me that we have enough support staff."

Executive superintendent Uton Robinson, in charge of special education, warned trustees not to believe "rumours" about the province's intentions and said the board is maintaining its teacher-to-student ratios in special education programs.

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