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Les Leyne: BCTF ruling interpretations complicated

The B.C. government is “looking for clarity” in its appeal of the court decision that demolished its education policy and handed teachers in the middle of contract negotiations a huge advantage.

The B.C. government is “looking for clarity” in its appeal of the court decision that demolished its education policy and handed teachers in the middle of contract negotiations a huge advantage.

That’s the single rarest commodity in the never-ending arguments between government and the teachers’ union.

Even during routine talks, both sides lay down smoke screens to cover the more absurd parts of their positions.

And when they head off to court, where the two sides have been engaged for years, the interpretations and explanations get even more complicated and opaque.

Last week’s judgment is the latest crisis to seize the attention and prompt more confusion about where the school system is going as far as labour relations are concerned.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation are far apart on their views of what the judgment does, and what Tuesday’s appeal of that judgment means.

It’s frustrating for the average parent to understand where this is going. But if you think that’s frustrating, try reaching a conclusion on how the school system is running on a day-to-day basis.

The differences on that basic question are just as vast as the gulf is on the contract.

The two sides compound the spin to serve their own purposes. So there’s almost as much confusion on the simple question of whether the system is getting it done as there is on contract manoeuvring.

Here are samples just from Tuesday of the differing descriptions of the school system, used by both sides to support their cases in the negotiations.

Fassbender said the B.C. Liberals have increased education spending by $1 billion over 13 years, despite enrolment decline of 9.4 per cent over that time. Student success rates have increased, based on international assessments, he said.

Fassbender said support for special needs has increased, including a 36 per cent hike in the number of full-time educational assistants. Average class sizes are “near historic lows” at all class levels, far below what they were 40 years ago.

The number of classes with more than 30 students has dropped 88 per cent in eight years.

Fassbender said the student-teacher ratio today is exactly the same as it was before the 2002 legislation that stripped the BCTF contract of expensive requirements to do with staffing, class sizes and composition.

An hour later, BCTF president Jim Iker said an entire generation of students has been short-changed. Kindergarten students in 2002 will be graduating soon from a system that’s been underfunded their entire career.

He cited the same time frame Fassbender did and summed it up as “12 years of cuts.”

The system has lost 1,400 specialist positions over that time frame, by the BCTF reckoning. And the strict ratios that were removed from the contract in 2002 were “just minimum service levels.”

In the Surrey district alone, last week’s directive from the court to return to that contract would mean hiring 18 librarians, 19 counsellors, 51 other specialists and 80 English-language teachers.

Iker said the B.C. school system is funded at $1,000 a student less than the national average, and B.C. is the second-worst in Canada. He cited a Statistics Canada study that showed it would take 6,600 more teachers in B.C. just to get to the Canadian average. And that would just “set a baseline.”

The difference between those two outlines is absurd. Both sides are exaggerating their description of the system in order to support their cases at the bargaining table.

So much for clarity.

Fassbender would be better off reading judgments. His government has been beaten in court twice, found in bad faith and fined $2 million to boot. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

And the BCTF would be better off parking any kind of position that suggests a minimum of 6,600 new teachers must be hired. The union has a big edge over the government at this point, even if the last win is under appeal.

It should be wary of over-reaching.