Teachers reach deal with province on classroom conditions

British Columbia teachers and the provincial government have reached a tentative agreement on restoring contract provisions unlawfully taken away by the province 15 years ago.

B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Glen Hansman said if the membership ratifies the deal, more librarians, counsellors, special-education instructors and English-as-a-second-language instructors will be hired.

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“But the biggest things parents and students will notice is class sizes will drop dramatically,” said Hansman, whose union represents about 41,000 teachers.

“We will no longer see thousands of classes across the province over 30 [students].”

The tentative agreement was reached between representatives of the BCTF, the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association, the Public Sector Employers’ Council Secretariat and the B.C. Ministry of Education. It is subject to a provincewide teacher vote, which will be held on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

The deal comes less than four months after a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that restored class-size and composition provisions that the province removed from teachers’ contracts in 2002. The two sides have been negotiating an implementation deal since November.

The case dates back to 2002, when Premier Christy Clark was education minister and the B.C. Liberal government dismantled teachers’ contracts by passing Bill 28. After the bill was found unconstitutional in 2011, Clark’s government brought in similar legislation to end a teachers strike in 2012.

In November, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the 2012 law was also unconstitutional.

B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier said he prefers to focus on the present.

Bernier said the government has promised $100 million to be spent hiring 1,100 teachers across B.C., and is prepared to spend whatever extra is needed to implement the new contract.

“One of the things we said with our budget was, wherever we landed [after negotiations], it would be accommodated within our fiscal plan,” Bernier said in an interview.

Details of the agreement, including its final costs to taxpayers, are being withheld until teachers have voted.

The BCTF has previously estimated the total cost of responding to the court ruling at about $300 million by the BCTF.

Under the 2002 contract language, class sizes were capped at 20 students for kindergarten, 22 for Grades 1-3, 28 for Grades 4-7 and 28 for Grades 8-12.

The caps are currently 22 for kindergarten, 24 for Grades 1-3 and 30 for Grades 4-12, with room to go beyond 30 if circumstances demanded.

Previous estimates from school officials have said going back to the 2002 language will require 35 to 45 new teachers for Greater Victoria school district, 13 to 22 in the Sooke district and 13 in the Saanich district.

School district officials have worried simply reverting to language negotiated 15 years ago may be difficult for some of the province’s 60 districts.

But Bernier and Hansman both noted the new agreement offers some flexibility to districts that may have trouble adjusting.

Edith Loring-Kuhanga, chairwoman of the Greater Victoria school district, said implementing the new contract will pose immediate challenges to staff recruiters.

After that, however, some space challenges will arise, she said. Smaller class sizes means more classrooms. Some schools might need to add extra portable classrooms, and some now-empty schools might have to be reopened.

Loring-Kuhanga believes fulfilling the new contract will force the district to hire additional out-of-classroom staff, such as librarians, counsellors and special-education specialists.

“I’m excited [about the new contract] and I think it’s long overdue,” she said. “We have had an entire generation that has gone through without sufficient auxiliary support.

“But I guess I worry if we are going to have the staff we need to put into place and whether we are going to have the facilities.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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