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British Columbia Labour peace prospects in B.C. schools dim as teachers accuse NDP of backpedaling on 2016 ruling

Hope for continued labour peace in British Columbia public schools is evaporating, with teachers accusing the B.C. NDP government of seeking to undo contract language that they won back after a 14-year court battle.

The union representing the province’s 43,000 teachers says the employer is proposing concessions that would roll back limits on class size and composition in the largest school districts in B.C. – dissolving the working conditions that were reinstated by the Supreme Court of Canada.

In response, the employers’ association is calling for the appointment of a facilitator: With just 11 bargaining days scheduled before the end of this school year, they say the teachers’ union is refusing to make concessions on demands that the government calculates would add another $1-billion to the education system.

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“We still want a deal, but it can’t be any old deal. We definitely need to make sure we are not going backward,” Glen Hansman, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, said in an interview.

“What is on the table are proposals that would remove each and every word of the teachers’ Supreme Court win of November, 2016, and replace it with watered-down language on class size, no language on class composition and less onus on the employer to ensure certain special-needs teachers are there."

That means hundreds of teachers would lose their jobs in some of the biggest school districts in the province, including Vancouver, Surrey, Victoria and Coquitlam, he said, while class sizes could grow in middle school and secondary schools to up to 33 students.

That contradicts promises made by Education Minister Rob Fleming that the government was seeking no concessions, Mr. Hansman said.

Mr. Fleming, in an interview Tuesday, maintained the proposals will not undermine working conditions for teachers. In the past two years, B.C.'s public schools have hired an additional 3,700 teachers in a bid to meet the contract language that the court found had been illegally stripped by the former Liberal government.

“We have invested $1-billion more annually in the school system – $400-million of that was related to the Supreme Court of Canada judgment, but $600-million was not. It was our own educational policies, to drive more resources for learners that need it,” Mr. Fleming said.

“We don’t seek to withdraw a single penny of that investment at that table, so there are no concessions. What we are doing is having a conversation about how to make the system work better for teachers and students.”

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Alan Chell is chair of the BC Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), which represents the province’s 60 public boards of education at the bargaining table. He said the teachers’ union needs to recognize that the province’s public-sector bargaining mandate provides little room to manoeuvre, beyond the promise of a three-year contract with wage hikes of 2 per cent each year.

“We are not close to an agreement,” Mr. Chell said. “The answer is not going to be [to] add $1-billion in proposals.”

The BCPSEA proposals include a baseline class size and the ability to provide additional resources to local school districts. This would include the ability to reduce class sizes or to increase class size, but provide more teacher preparation time or other classroom supports. It would provide funds for specialist teachers without specifying positions, such as teacher-librarians.

Negotiators for BCPSEA offered to withdraw the proposals earlier this week, but their alternative model was rejected as well, so the package remains on the table.

Mr. Chell said the proposals would level the playing field for school districts by replacing the patchwork of contract language with a single province-wide model. “At the end of the day, we are talking about the same number of teachers, the same dollars,” he said. “We are saying there should be equity for students around the province.”

Acrimony has been the defining characteristic of relations between the province and the teachers’ federation for decades. It reached its zenith in 2014 with a strike that spanned two school years and shuttered classrooms for five weeks.

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Neither side would discuss whether the current impasse could lead to a strike, and a strike vote by the teachers has not been taken. When asked about the likelihood of job action, however, Mr. Hansman said “that’s up to the government.”

“Certainly our members are talking about it.”

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