A B.C. Supreme Court justice is the second mediator to turn down a request to help settle the labour dispute between public school teachers and the provincial government – a sign that the bitter dispute is likely to drag on through the summer.
In a joint statement issued Wednesday afternoon, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) said both sides had agreed that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Kelleher would be an acceptable mediator. However, Justice Kelleher “had some exploratory discussions with the parties and determined that mediation is not indicated at this time,” the statement said.
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
Each party pointed to the other as the reason why the two sides remain too far apart for mediation.
“The government, by trying to impose a series of unworkable preconditions prior to entering into mediation, has not provided the flexibility required to make mediation work,” said BCTF president Jim Iker at a news conference on Wednesday.
“The preconditions would have predetermined the outcome. That means, once again, this government missed an opportunity to reach a settlement, get summer school back on and provide certainty for September.”
Asked for details of the “unworkable preconditions,” Mr. Iker said only that they involved aspects of the wage proposals.
In the other corner, Education Minister Peter Fassbender said it became “explicitly clear” through exploratory discussions that the BCTF executive “would not commit to tabling a set of demands that fall into the same affordability zone as the other public-sector agreements reached to date.”
“What we have found is a continuation of [the BCTF’s] desire to add things into the contract negotiations that are unaffordable,” Mr. Fassbender said.
While the teachers’ union has moved on wages, the $225-million annual fund it wants for improved benefits and preparation time puts the proposal out of the affordability zone, he said.
Justice Kelleher is the second mediator to pass on the job in 10 days. On June 22, veteran mediator Vince Ready turned down the position, saying he was simply too busy.
Meanwhile, individual school districts have begun to notify parents about what will happen with summer classes. Last week, the Labour Relations Board had ruled that teachers must hold remedial classes for students in Grades 10 to 12 who need to retake a failed course and can’t do so during the following year.
But some school districts appear to find the ruling unclear. The Richmond School District, for example, has said it will continue its summer international program, slated to start July 7.
“It’s a non-credit program, therefore the collective agreement with the union doesn’t apply,” Richard Hudson, the school district’s director of international programs, told the Richmond News. “We do run into potential difficulties with picket lines so, therefore, we’re going to move it off-site to Richmond Christian [School].”
Reached by e-mail on Wednesday, Mr. Hudson declined an interview, saying the district is expecting “more clarity around this issue shortly.”
Al Klassen, president of the Richmond Teachers’ Association, told The Globe and Mail union members are prepared to picket at the private school if the program does go ahead.
In Vancouver, the school board has refunded international student registrations and is not planning to run those programs over the summer, VSB chair Patti Bacchus said. Regular summer school classes are also cancelled and the district does not have any students who meet the LRB’s essential services order requirement, the school district announced Wednesday.
“This is really unfortunate,” VSB superintendent Steve Cardwell said in a statement. “However, the reality is that without our teaching and support staff, due to the prospect of picket lines at our school sites, summer school will not be able to happen.
Vancouver joins a number of other school districts – including Abbotsford, Kamloops-Thompson and Prince George – which have also cancelled summer classes despite the LRB ruling.
In an automated call to parents, Kamloops-Thompson’s superintendent Terry Sullivan said “many evaluations for students are incomplete, so it’s not possible for us to know the number of students who are eligible to attend this restricted summer school program.”