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Province spending $13M to boost services for northern special needs students

Government spending $22M on new initiative

Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter took time to smell the flowers on Friday during a stop at École élémentaire catholique St. Dominique in Greater Sudbury.

“C'est ma favourite,” Hunter said of a tulip given to her by a student, the latest cabinet minister to visit to gamely try their hand at speaking French while in town.

Hunter and Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault were on hand to announce $22 million in new annual funding for educational supports through the Northern Supports Initiative and the Special Education Grant.

Of that amount, $13 million is going to boards in Northern Ontario for programs such as behavioural supports, psychoeducational services, mental-health support, speech language and pathology services. 

"These young people need support," Hunter said Friday. "Without sufficient resources and investments, our school system could not achieve the results it currently does. To achieve the best results for students in northern boards, it requires ongoing dialogue with communities to understand their needs."

She said she toured some northern schools in January to get a better idea of the needs and challenges of students.

"I recognize that school boards operating in the North have unique needs," Hunter said. "These challenges especially impact students with special needs."

The funding includes $11 million in additional special education grant funding to support French language school boards, she said.

"This funding will benefit approximately 20,000 students with special education needs at 22 boards in northern and rural Ontario. All students should have the possibility to succeed."

When asked about plans among school boards across the North to close schools, Hunter said local boards are in the best position to make those decisions.

"We recognize that the school boards at the local level are looking for ways to provide the best educational outcomes for students, and what is the configuration required into order to deliver that," she said. "I know they are mindful of issues such as transportation and distance. It's one of the reasons why we have the Northern Ontario fund in place, so boards have more flexibility in making those choices.

"When the board decides they need to do a review, we have guidelines in place for them to do that, to have meaningful discussions with the community."

The province has created a $50 million fund to help convert some of those school into community hubs, working with other community groups.

"That's a fantastic opportunity,” she said. “That allows that school facility to continue to be used by the public, but perhaps with other partners at the table."

The 2017 provincial budget includes an additional investment of $6.4 billion over three years in Ontario's education system.