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Geoff Johnson: Court paves way for changes in education

OK, let’s all take a deep breath and exhale slowly now that the Supreme Court of Canada has handed down its long-awaited decision about whether the B.C. government in 2002 exceeded its authority in stripping certain negotiated clauses from the B.C.

OK, let’s all take a deep breath and exhale slowly now that the Supreme Court of Canada has handed down its long-awaited decision about whether the B.C. government in 2002 exceeded its authority in stripping certain negotiated clauses from the B.C. teachers’ contract.

Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada in a 7-2 judgment confirmed two earlier Supreme Court of B.C. decisions that found the legislation to be unconstitutional and ordered the deleted language be restored.

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, according to president Glen Hansman, spent between $2.5 million and $3 million over the 14 years it took for that decision to be reached.

No doubt government spent at least that much as a seemingly endless series of convoluted court decisions, each contradicting its predecessor, kept battalions of lawyers gainfully employed.

Time now for both the BCTF and government to bring out their big-boy problem-solving methods and agree, without prejudice, about several possible take-aways from the Supreme Court decision:

1. This needs never to have happened and in future it never will again — not in the arena of public-education labour relations.

2. A collective agreement, once completed, is not subject to buyer’s remorse on either side. It is what it is and can only be altered or corrected during the next scheduled round of bargaining.

3. Most collective-bargaining agreements provide that disputes are not resolved by recourse to the civil courts but, rather, by some private alternative dispute mechanism, mediation or arbitration, usually the latter.

4. In a case where an entire generation of school children was held hostage for 14 years to the unhurried and painstaking processes of the legal system, we all lost.

Legal friends tell me that it is unusual for the Supreme Court to come down this hard on a duly elected government. For the court to uphold the 2014 decision that the B.C. government should not have messed with a legal contract is certainly a break with that tradition, but the warning signs were there.

According to Joel Bakan, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law, the Supreme Court of Canada, in several recent cases, has been consistent and “quite bullish” in protecting workers’ rights under the Charter, including the rights to unionize, strike and bargain collectively.

“So there just wasn’t a lot of argument,” said Bakan, suggesting that the seven majority judges looked at the case and said: “We’ve spoken already, we’ve articulated what the law is, we don’t need to do it again.”

So … breathe deeply, exhale slowly and set aside the whole playground-mentality game of winners and losers. The game is over and to some observers, nobody won.

Throughout the legal process, the provincial government has warned that restoring the deleted contract terms would be costly. In its provincial budget last year, the province identified the case as a “major risk” to its balanced-budget plans.

The BCTF estimates that it would cost between $250 million and $300 million a year to restore class limits and other provisions of previous contracts. The teachers’ current contract, which includes provisions to renegotiate depending on future court decisions, runs until June 30, 2019.

Insisting that the Supreme Court decision be implemented without delay might win points with some factions within the BCTF membership, but everyone should remember that since 2002 much has changed in the public-education landscape.

Public school enrolment decreased, but now seems to be somewhat back on track. A surplus of fully trained teachers has resulted in fewer young men and women choosing the profession. Let’s hope it is not too late to reverse that trend, partly encouraged by the court decision.

In the past 14 years, our understanding about children with special needs has increased exponentially and is far from being met either in the public or private systems. A renewed commitment to specialized training opportunities for teachers already in service is needed.

Because of ongoing high-profile labour strife, public confidence in the public school system has suffered. Independent school enrolments have skyrocketed.

It is against this complicated background that discussions between a government and the BCTF should take place in an environment that deals with facts and opportunities for public education provided by “the now,” not with non-productive resentments developed over the past miserable 14 years.

The Supreme Court decision has created the real prospect of government and the BCTF disposing of that decanter of vitriol, which has left such a bad taste in the mouths of so many parents and taxpayers about how public education is governed.

Breathe deeply … now exhale, and both sides get on with it, please.

 

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

gfjohnson4@shaw.ca