Too early to tell impact of schools court decision

The B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF) may have won round two in its court battle with the education ministry, but the fight is likely far from over, says the Burnaby Teachers' Association (BTA).

"Obviously teachers are thrilled at the decision because it's something that's been hanging over our heads for 12 years and of course it did start with the now-premier who was then the education minister," said BTA president James Sanyshyn.

In 2002, the ministry removed the limits on class size and composition that had been negotiated in an earlier contract with public school teachers, and ended their ability to negotiate for such measures.

But it wasn't until 2007, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it was unconstitutional for the province to tear up its contract with the BC Hospital Employees' Union, resulting in the privatization of services and thousands of layoffs, that the BCTF had a precedent to work with for its own case.

In 2011, BC Supreme Court ruled the ministry's similar actions against the teachers' contract was unconstitutional and ordered it to rectify the situation within a year.

But earlier this week, the court decided the new legislation was no different from the one struck down earlier and that the province had even been attempting to goad the teachers into striking so Victoria could gain politically by legislating them back to work. The judgment also ordered the province to pay the BCTF $2 million in damages.

"Now 12 years later, basically the length of a child's education, we can see for example in Burnaby, we've got over 400 classes that have three or more special needs students in them," Sanyshyn said.

In the past, under the previous teachers' contract language, no classes would have had more than two such students, he said. Today, some have as many as seven or eight who would potentially require greater attention from teachers.

"At the end of the day [teachers are] spread pretty thin."

Sanyshyn said the teachers know that it may still take time to see any tangible gains from the decision, such as funding for more teachers to lower class sizes. For one thing, the province will have about a month to decide whether or not to appeal, something Premier Christy Clark had suggested in media reports they were leaning towards, he noted.

However, as far as the BCTF is concerned, the decision means the current contract negotiations will have the contract that existed in 2002 as a baseline.

"If [the province has] any expectation of not honouring that we expect them to come with counterproposals," he said.

And concessions the ministry was hoping to achieve from the contract currently in place may no longer be feasible. "They may have to rethink their strategy because that could jeopardize their appeals process."

Sanyshyn stressed that school boards won't be able to find the savings needed to restore class size and composition to 2002 levels, so the expectation is that the education ministry would have to come up with the money.

He added that funding for in B.C. is now $1,000 lower per public school student than the national average. Among provinces, only Prince Edward Island funds at a lower level.

Burnaby school board chair Baljinder Narang said it's too early to know what the impact of the decision will be.

"It's a significant decision and it's going to have some kind of impact but how it's going to play out, I would be second-guessing if I said anything."

Ministry of Education spokesperson Ben Green said the ministry is carefully reviewing the 150-page decision, including whether to appeal.

"The ministry is obviously going to continue to work with the BCTF in pursuit of a long-term labour agreement and long-term labour stability, but at this time it's too early to determine what the impacts will be," Green said.

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