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Olive Alcazar, who teaches kindergarten and Grade 1 at Port Coquitlam's James Park Elementary School, displays her layoff number while standing for a photograph in Coquitlam, B.C., on Tuesday May 13, 2014. The Coquitlam School District issued layoff notices to 630 teachers May 8. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Olive Alcazar, who teaches kindergarten and Grade 1 at Port Coquitlam's James Park Elementary School, displays her layoff number while standing for a photograph in Coquitlam, B.C., on Tuesday May 13, 2014. The Coquitlam School District issued layoff notices to 630 teachers May 8. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

‘Unprecedented’ number of B.C. teachers receive layoff notices Add to ...

It happens every spring: Dozens of B.C. public-school teachers are laid off as part of a juggling exercise in which school districts adjust their payrolls to correspond with projected budgets and enrolments for the next academic year.

By September, many have been rehired.

This year, the process has been even more disruptive than usual. Hundreds of teachers, including 632 in Coquitlam, have received layoff notices. Numbers are still coming in from the province’s 60 school districts, but the total number of layoffs is expected to be “unprecedented,” according to the B.C. Teachers’ Federation. In Saanich, up to 140 of the district’s roughly 500 teachers – nearly a third – could be laid off. In Comox, 270 teachers, or 40 per cent of the teaching roster, have received layoff notices. Staff cuts are also expected in Burnaby, Maple Ridge and other districts.

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Some annual shuffling is inevitable, but budget pressures over the past decade have made the ritual increasingly disruptive, says Charley King, president of the Coquitlam Teachers’ Association.

“There is a lack of continuity, no question, for the kids,” Mr. King said. “We have had layoffs every year since 2002. ... In some respects, it has become the new normal. But last year was pretty severe, and this year, it is just incredibly harsh.”

The end result come September will be fewer teachers in classrooms around the province, underlining the ongoing debate over class size and composition – and money – that has soured teacher-government relations in B.C. for more than a decade.

The layoffs come amid escalating tension over teachers’ contract talks. Last Thursday, the government backed away from its previously stated goal of a 10-year deal, saying the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association – the bargaining agent for B.C.’s 60 school boards – would table a six-year proposal and offer teachers a signing bonus. On Friday, the province said it would roll back teachers’ wages 5 per cent if a contract is not reached by the end of the school year. The BCTF said it would challenge that move before the provincial labour relations board.

Teachers voted in favour of a strike in March and have been engaged in limited job action since mid-April, which is set to escalate next week. The teachers’ contract expired on June 30, 2013.

Bargaining is taking place against the backdrop of a long-running court battle between the teachers’ union and the province. In January, a Supreme Court of B.C. judge reaffirmed a 2011 court ruling that found provincial education legislation introduced in 2002 was unconstitutional. The province is appealing the 2014 decision.

The uncertainty around contract talks is compounded by disruption and uncertainty relating to layoffs. The situation varies from district to district, depending on factors such as enrolment and the number of teachers of retirement age. Surrey, the largest school district in the province, issued 642 layoff notices this spring but because of rising enrolment in the district, expects the overall number of teaching positions to remain the same, at 4,344.

Vancouver also dodged teacher layoffs this year, although it made a host of other cuts and only maintained its elementary band and strings program – which had been on the chopping block – by dipping into its emergency fund.

While B.C. teachers are covered by a province-wide contract, some issues – including complex post-and-fill provisions that shape the layoff process – are negotiated at a local level. Some districts have provisions that shield teachers of some specialized subjects, such as French or physics, from the annual cull. Other districts do not, meaning some teachers are repeatedly laid off even though it is a near certainty they will be called back.

Not all the people who are laid off will lose their jobs. If districts want to eliminate 100 teaching positions for budget or enrolment reasons, they might issue 200 or more layoff notices so that teachers with more seniority can move into positions vacated by colleagues who have less seniority. Once variables such as retirements and eliminating part-time positions are taken into account, the actual number of layoffs drops. Last year, for example, Coquitlam laid off 482 people to eliminate 80 full-time teaching positions. All but two of those people were eventually recalled, although some of them came back to part-time or temporary jobs.

This year, it is expected that up to 90 teachers may not be recalled – partly because many part-time jobs were already eliminated in previous years.

Asked about the layoffs and the annual disruption, provincial Education Minister Peter Fassbender noted that layoff and recall provisions are negotiated at the local level by individual school districts.

And he suggested it is not accurate to link layoffs solely to provincial education funding.

“There is a suggestion here, that ‘look at the bad old provincial government’ – and even the school board is more than happy to see the blame rest with us, when, quite honestly, some of the challenges they have is their own fiscal management,” Mr. Fassbender said Friday in an interview.

Coquitlam superintendent Tom Grant said the district looked at multiple options to bridge a $13.4-million shortfall, including cutting cafeteria services and even turning down the heat.

“Our budget is 92 per cent salary,” he said. “So you have to let people go.”

Editor’s Note: A story published online and in print on Tuesday incorrectly said Surrey is not laying off teachers this spring. In fact, Surrey has issued layoff notices to 642 teachers but expects that because of rising enrolment, few or no classroom teaching positions will be eliminated by the fall. This version of the story has been corrected.

Follow on Twitter: @wendy_stueck

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