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The union representing British Columbia’s teachers will begin contract negotiations shortly. After an exceptionally long stretch of labour peace in the public school system, the prospect for conflict is high.

Before talks begin, Education Minister Rob Fleming will unveil a new funding formula for students in the K-12 education system that will set the tone for bargaining with the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF).

The last round of bargaining resulted in a strike that spanned two school years and shuttered classrooms for five weeks. The contract that teachers won in the fall of 2014 expires next June, and talks are set to begin early in the new year.

The current, per-pupil system delivers $5.65-billion to the province’s 60 school districts . Those districts receive a higher amount for each pupil with a special-needs designation. British Columbia is now looking at adopting the formula used in Ontario, where funding is based on the prevalence of special needs, rather than a school-by-school head count.

The contract and the funding formula are linked, because the current system is embedded in the teachers' contract. Having just gone through an exhausting and costly battle to win back rights over working conditions that were stripped from their contract in 2002, the teachers are wary of any attempt by government to amend the formula.

The teachers' legal battle with the B.C. Liberal government ended in November, 2016, at the Supreme Court of Canada, when the BCTF won a ruling that overturned legislation that took away teachers' rights to negotiate class size, and the number of special-needs students in each classroom.

Now the head of the teachers' union says he is worried the current NDP government may “inadvertently” revive hostilities with its handling of the funding review.

“Our members need airtight certainty that we are not going to lose the language we fought 16 years to restore,” BCTF president Glen Hansman said in an interview.

The court battle drained the union’s financial resources, leaving the teachers with a meager strike fund that was emptied long before a settlement was reached. Mr. Hansman said there is no appetite for another court battle – but they will if they have to.

Mr. Fleming’s handling of the funding formula review has been provocative and has generated anxiety for teachers, Mr. Hansman said.

The union was not part of the panel that conducted the review. The scope was limited to the formula itself, without addressing the issue of how much money is needed to adequately deliver services to students. And Mr. Fleming’s decision to sit on the report, which was given to him in August, has left speculation to fill the vacuum.

The Education Minister is not in a hurry to supply answers.

In an interview, Mr. Fleming said the report will be made public in the next few weeks, but that won’t be the end of it. “Once the report is released, government will need feedback from all its partners on how best to construct a better formula."

He is open to the idea of changing the formula to Ontario’s prevalence model. “I think there are some advantages to advancing funding to school districts to run their special-needs education programs that does not rely on excessive paperwork," he said.

Students with special needs make up about one-tenth of the total student population, so funding based on that assumption would give school districts a more predictable and simple system for budgeting. But Mr. Hansman said it would make it even tougher than it is now to ensure individual children with special needs get the help they need.

The amount of funding is also important. Despite a large injection of cash into the province’s school system required by the Supreme Court decision, the shortage of special-education teachers continues to be a challenge, particularly in rural schools. Along with teachers, there are parents, support staff and school administrators waiting to see if the new funding formula will simply move dollars around, or bring additional resources into the classrooms.

However, Mr. Fleming would not say if the new formula will be sorted out in time for the next provincial budget, which will be tabled in February. “The timeline is under discussion,” he said.

The labour-friendly NDP government cannot bank on goodwill with the teachers' union to avoid confrontation – the BCTF has engaged in bitter strikes with governments of all political stripes. And then, there is the pent-up demand now that the 16 years of Liberal government are over. “This round, we are going to have to pick up where we left off in 2002," Mr. Hansman said. “Those are going to be challenging conversations at the table.”

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