B.C.’s political uncertainty looms over future of teachers’ union agreement

With the fate of B.C.’s provincial government up in the air, students, parents and teachers will head into summer vacation with little certainty about what classrooms will be like in the fall.

The current Liberal government has already negotiated an agreement with the province’s teachers’ union in response to a Supreme Court of Canada decision last year that restored previously deleted contract clauses. But that agreement, which included money to hire thousands of new teachers, was seen as a starting point to further negotiations. That means, much depends on which party forms government.

Once a new government is in place, Glen Hansman, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, urges it to act “quickly and decisively to direct school districts to fulfill their side of the agreement.”

The Liberals won the most seats in the May 9 provincial election, but fell one seat short of a majority. The New Democrats and Greens have agreed to vote down the Liberals, which is expected to happen later this month, and then work together under an NDP minority government.

Before the election, the Liberal government reached a deal with the BC Teachers’ Federation to create a $360-million fund to hire about 2,600 new teachers to meet the restored contract terms. Those rules govern class sizes, the numbers of specialist teachers and how many special-needs students can be in one class.

Mike Bernier, Education Minister under the Liberal government, said the agreement was a starting point, but that districts had to work within that range for their budgets, due by June 30.

“I can’t speculate on what a future government might or might not do when it comes to the education system,” Mr. Bernier said.

School trustees and district administrators across the province can’t speculate, either. They need to operate within the bounds they have been given and in some cases, they’re saying it’s not enough.

The Liberal government and all three political parties said they would fully fund the restored contract provisions, said Gordon Swan, president of the BC School Trustees Association and a trustee in Nicola-Similkameen.

“Government has said they will fully fund the costs of the Supreme Court decision, and so I’m confident that they will do so – whoever is sitting in government or who is minister,” Mr. Swan said.

But Mr. Hansman said the lack of political direction is a “huge problem,” because there is no one to sort out disagreements.

“I can’t blame trustees. They are being given constantly changing dates and constantly changing instructions,” Mr. Hansman said.

Rob Fleming, the NDP’s long-time education critic, said an NDP government would fully fund the implementation “at the first opportunity to do so.”

“It’s sounding like the estimates … are not adequate for every district in B.C.,” Mr. Fleming said. “We don’t want to see school districts making cuts because they’ve had a government they can’t trust for the past 16 years to live up to their word.”

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver also issued a statement reaffirming the party’s commitment to fully funding the new contracts.

Several districts – including the province’s largest district, Surrey – do not have a final dollar figure for how much funding they will be given, Mr. Hansman said.

Already, a number of districts have started arbitrations, a process in place to resolve disagreements over implementation of the Supreme Court decision.

In Vancouver, there is a disagreement over how many special-needs students can be in a classroom. Rory Brown, president of the Vancouver Secondary Teachers’ Association, says the district would rather pay for a “remedy” than create the classes by the rules.

Remedies, such as more preparation time for a teacher or more adults in a classroom, are required when contract rules can’t be followed.

“We don’t want a remedy, we want the classes organized properly from the beginning so we can best serve the students,” Mr. Brown said. “They’re doing it on the cheap.”

In Surrey, there is an arbitration over the loss of 66 Learner Support Team teachers, who worked with students who have learning disabilities and mild intellectual disabilities. These positions are being cut because they are not specifically required in the 2002 contract.

“These students are going to have less support next year,” said Gioia Breda, president of the Surrey Teachers’ Association.

Surrey is hiring other teachers, including some who will work with special-needs students, but Ms. Breda called the cuts “unconscionable” and said they will be devastating to both members and students.

In Nanaimo, students with special needs could also get less support next year, said Shannon Iverson, vice-president of the Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association. Also, she said some students lost their special-needs designations during a recent review of all students.

She said there is a lot of anxiety about what September will be like.

“This is a busy, busy time for school districts. … It’s much more difficult for districts to do this work when they are unsure of what they are going to be given,” she said.

But Mr. Hansman said there is still hope for a positive outcome.

“I am optimistic that once the dust settles and we finally figure out who the government is, there will be an opportunity to get things right,” he said. “There is still time to get things sorted out before school starts.”

With a report from Justine Hunter

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