The Vancouver School Board is seeking legal counsel in advance of partial teacher lockouts scheduled to begin on Monday, a move that appears to be designed to protect the board if either the lockouts or a corresponding pay cut for teachers are found to be offside with labour regulations.
The board is seeking advice "regarding its options and responsibilities as employers," VSB chairwoman Patti Bacchus said Friday in an e-mail. The board's move underlines the uncertainty around the partial lockouts, which would reduce teachers' overall hours and provide the basis for a pay cut.
The province's chief negotiator Peter Cameron said it was "borderline bizarre" for the VSB to seek legal advice.
"For a school board that complains of financial pressures to run off to a lawyer instead of picking up the phone [to call the employers' group] seems odd," he said Friday. "It's a waste of money for the Vancouver School Board to be pursuing this."
The British Columbia School Trustees' Association, the umbrella group for school boards, has received information about the legality of the lockout, and directors will review that information Monday, BCSTA president Teresa Rezansoff said on Friday.
"The position that [B.C. Public School Employers' Association] is taking is that as our employers' association … they do have the right to do that [declare a lockout]," Ms. Rezansoff said.
Asked if she was concerned that the partial lockout or pay cut could be found to contravene provincial labour laws, Ms. Rezansoff said those questions fall more in BCPSEA's domain.
"We have an employers' association for a reason – to represent us in these matters," she said. "They have the expertise … the communication that we are getting from them is that they are within the letter of the law."
The lockouts were declared by BCPSEA, the bargaining agent for B.C.'s 60 school boards. Details of the lockouts were outlined in a May 21 letter from BCPSEA to the head of the teachers' union.
The British Columbia Teachers' Federation, which represents B.C.'s 41,000 unionized teachers, has challenged the employers' move, saying the wage cut contravenes an essential services agreement the two sides reached in April.
A labour relations board hearing is scheduled for May 29.
Under the provisions of the lockout, teachers are not to be at school except during class and for a 45-minute window before and after class.
Those restrictions resulted in widespread confusion after they were disclosed, with BCTF president Jim Iker saying the partial lockouts would threaten sports, field trips and other after-school activities, including graduation ceremonies.
BCPSEA subsequently posted two "question and answer" bulletins to counter a barrage of questions related to the partial lockouts. The second, posted on May 23, said "significant misinformation" was circulating about the impact of the partial lockout and emphasized that teachers are welcome to continue their involvement with "any extracurricular or volunteer activities of their choice."
Also on May 23, BCPSEA public administrator Michael Marchbank wrote to board chairs to explain the legal basis for the partial lockout, noting that BCPSEA is the "accredited and exclusive bargaining agent" for all school boards.
In the memo, Mr. Marchbank said the partial lockout was declared to apply "reciprocal pressure, as appropriate, to the BCTF as a result of its strike action."
The lockouts are expected to start on the same day that BCTF begins four days of provincewide rotating walkouts.
The teachers' contract expired in June of 2013. Teachers launched limited job action in April. The two sides remain far apart on issues including wages and class size and composition.
The current labour dispute is complicated by a long-running court dispute between the teachers and the government. 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.