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Finance Minister Carole James, seen here on July 18, 2019, said 'we want to make sure that we balance the budget, that we provide programs and services and supports for people, and that we give a fair wage to our employees.'CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

B.C. Finance Minister Carole James’s Feb. 18 budget will carry a message for the largest public-sector union that has yet to settle a contract in the current round of negotiations – the BC Teachers’ Federation.

The teachers’ union says the only way to reach a settlement requires additional funds from government, but Ms. James is drafting a barely balanced budget that will put no more money on the table, the Finance Minister has confirmed.

While every other major public-sector union has settled under the government’s bargaining mandate, which offers a three-year contract with pay hikes of 2 per cent in each year, the BCTF maintains that amount does not begin to address their demands.

“The mandate is the mandate,” Ms. James said in an interview. “We want to make sure that we balance the budget, that we provide programs and services and supports for people, and that we give a fair wage to our employees.”

That fair wage offer, she said, is the one offered to all of the public-sector unions, and no more.

The BCTF has only signed one collective agreement in its 33-year history of labour negotiations without outside intervention. Despite new players in key positions on both sides, this round of talks appears unlikely to break the pattern of dysfunctional bargaining.

Bargaining started early in 2019 on a note of optimism. There was a new, labour-friendly government in power that promised it would seek no concessions.

Today, there are no talks scheduled and both sides have been in a stalemate since the union rejected mediator David Schaub’s recommendations in November.

“A year ago, I think there was a lot of hope,” said Stephanie Higginson, president of the BC School Trustees Association, which represents the employer in B.C. public schools. After more than 70 days at the table in contract negotiations, there has been little progress. “We’ve worn ourselves out at this point.”

B.C. schools have had almost six years of labour peace, but that could change soon.

BCTF president Teri Mooring said her union has not taken a strike vote, but it is discussing job action. “Any time you’re at the table for this long, those conversations definitely happen.”

The proposals from the employers’ side amount to concessions, she said, which need to be scrapped to make any progress.

The union maintains that a shortage of teachers in the school system justifies bigger wage increases than those accepted by other unions.

There is another, significant sticking point: The employer wants to change the contract language around class size and composition – the number of students, and the number of students with special needs, who can be in each classroom. The union, which spent a dozen years in court fighting to restore those limits after they were stripped from their contract, is deeply vested in keeping what was won back through a B.C. Supreme Court judgment.

In his report in November, Mr. Schaub, who is still the mediator, concluded there is a “disconnect between the parties that will not allow them to reach a collective agreement.”

While there seems to be a deep gulf between the two sides, both Ms. Mooring and Ms. Higginson come to the dispute with fresh perspective. Ms. Mooring became president last June, while Ms. Higginson – a former high-school teacher – took over the helm of the School Trustees in April. Both have taught in B.C. schools.

Both sides acknowledge that this is a difficult set of talks, because it is the first attempt to work out the restoration of contract language on class size and composition. The language, which is unevenly applied between districts, has not been altered in more than a decade.

And, both Ms. Mooring and Ms. Higginson agree the next contract can be a vehicle for better learning conditions in the classroom.

For the BCTF, the goal is “equity of learning conditions across the province,” Ms. Mooring said.

Of the 60 school districts, 20 do not have limits on class size and composition. “That definitely means that inequity exists in terms of students’ experiences in schools, and we don’t think it should be that disparate, so we’re looking to fill some of the gaps there," she said.

Ms. Mooring says salaries have fallen behind most other provinces, making it difficult to recruit and retain teachers. The number of non-certified teachers working in B.C. schools has reached unprecedented levels, she added: “It shouldn’t matter where a child goes to school in this entire province, there should be a certified teacher in their classroom,” she said.

Ms. Higginson’s vision for the school system also revolves around improving the education system, but with a different approach. “We’re really trying to optimize the learning conditions, with what we know about teaching and learning today.” She argues the class size and composition limits, as restored by the courts, need to be more flexible. “It feels a bit like we are undertaking an archeological exercise, in terms of trying to determine what the intentions of language were 30 years ago, rather than having conversations about what counts as modern and robust student support.”