A Tauranga school struggling under increasing financial pressure says the funding model meant to help with high-needs students is "broken".

Greerton Village School principal Anne Mackintosh and Board of Trustees chairwoman Desiree Burborough told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend the school would have to "top up" a funding shortfall of $118,482.26 this year.

The money would have to come from the school board's operational grant, the pair said.

The Ministry of Education provides Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) funding for the school's 24 special and high-needs students to help pay for teacher aides whose support is decided on a child's learning needs.


However, "the hours of support have to be increased over and above what is granted due to their extreme needs and health and safety issues", Burborough said.

The school has 24 ORS-funded students, 10 more than 2016, and at least five other students have "challenging behavioural needs". More high-needs students were expected to join the school before 2019, Mackintosh said.

"This adds additional pressure while we strive to do the best we can."

The school has 21 externally funded teacher aides working with the children with significant needs. It also employs other teacher aides (two fulltime equivalents) who are funded by the board.

In November, the school received a discretionary lump sum grant of $10,000 after a Ministry of Education official visited. While they were grateful, Mackintosh said "it was a mere drop in the ocean".

She said ORS funding levels had remained the same for years "yet teacher aide wages have risen".

Mackintosh said there was a difference between the hourly rate used to calculate ministry funding and what Greerton Village School was paying teacher aides.

Schools employ teacher aides and decide their hourly rate but the ministry contributes towards that.

While invited to apply for further funding by upgrading some ORS-funded students to ''very high'' needs status, she said that was an "arduous" and time-consuming" process.

Mackintosh and Burborough described the current funding model as broken and inadequate and met with the ministry to discuss it.

The "million-dollar question" was what the school would do if it failed to get extra funding. It could not legally turn away any child living in its school zone.

Business consultant and parent Erika Harvey, whose autistic daughter Piper, 7, attends the school, was asked to investigate and later sent an open letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calling for a taskforce to be set up to solve the problem. She also launched a petition.

 Erika Harvey, whose daughter Piper, 7, attends Greerton Village School, has written an open letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern about the school's funding woes. Photo/John Borren.
Erika Harvey, whose daughter Piper, 7, attends Greerton Village School, has written an open letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern about the school's funding woes. Photo/John Borren.

Harvey said helping special and high-needs students, including Piper, to become inclusive members of the school had put "intense" pressure on the school's finances.

"Piper at 5 was still in nappies, had violent outbursts, couldn't communicate, and she was not only a danger to herself but other students and teachers as well," Harvey said.

This was no longer the case, she said.

"My once angry, non-verbal child can be found each morning on the school radio, singing songs in assembly, and participating in other activities including the kapa haka group."

Harvey believed the school had become a victim of its own success, with families moving into the area to send their children there.

Piper Harvey, who has autism, attends Greerton Village School. Photo / Supplied
Piper Harvey, who has autism, attends Greerton Village School. Photo / Supplied

Western Bay of Plenty Principal Association vice-president Matt Simeon said, apart from Tauranga Special School, 24 ORS funded students at one school was an "incredibly high" number.

"I know of a few schools that have eight, 10 or maybe 12, but 24 would compound the problem, especially given the minimum wage for teacher aides has risen to $16.50 an hour," he said.

The ministry's Katrina Casey said it was working with the school to get its finances back on track and would continue to support it.

"As part of this process we will be looking into the amount of funding the school is receiving in relation to its ORS students and ensuring it is accurate."

She said schools varied greatly in the number of ORS-verified students, but Greerton Village had a "relatively high number" for a primary school of its size.

Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin said the Greerton Village School community was not alone in being under ORS-funding financial pressure.

"We've inherited a problem with ORS funding, and with funding for those children who don't meet the strict ORS criteria," she said.

"I'm working with Education Minister Chris Hipkins to see if we can get extra funding for this in the budget."

Funding - by the numbers

For Term 1 of 2018, Ministry of Education records showed Greerton Village School would receive more than $73,000 in teacher aide funding across several initiatives.

Those included: In-class support ($4600), behaviour service ($2000), school high health needs fund ($4800), language learning initiative ($400) and ORS ($62,000).

Greerton Village School received 2.9 full-time equivalents of additional teacher time for their students who are verified into the ORS, the ministry said.

The school received $28,900 of Special Education Grant funding in 2018, which is delivered in its operations grant and is being used to help top up the ORS funding.

Greerton Village School accesses specialist supports from the local Ministry of Education Learning Support (speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, education psychology, special education advisers).