The B.C. government is prepared to find more resources to address special needs in the classroom, Education Minister Peter Fassbender said Thursday. But the offer comes with a caveat that appears calculated to drive a wedge between the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the union representing 26,000 support workers and education assistants who are walking the picket line with teachers.
As hopes for an early resolution to the province's public-school strike fade, Mr. Fassbender and Premier Christy Clark are honing a new message for frustrated parents: that the government is willing to move further on the contentious issue of class composition – the number of special-needs students in each classroom.
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
But in a shot directed at the BCTF, they are stressing that any additional funds won't be directed solely to the teachers' union, but will also be shared with members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees who have already gained more jobs in the public-school system while the BCTF's membership shrinks.
The Premier took to her social media accounts to promise to make class composition her top priority. "More educators helping more students. BCTF or CUPE, it doesn't matter because students' needs come first," Ms. Clark stated in her Twitter feed.
By referring to educators, rather than teachers, the government is seeking to blunt the BCTF's argument that more specialist teachers are needed to help students with special needs.
"The first stumbling block to getting a negotiated settlement is the BCTF being realistic in their demands on wages and benefits," Mr. Fassbender said Thursday. "If they come into that affordability zone, is there then the ability for some give-and-take at the table on the items including class size composition, especially composition? Yes."
The province has offered $75-million each year for a "learning improvement fund" to address class size and composition, but 20 per cent of that is already earmarked for CUPE's education assistants. The BCTF wants $175-million in the first year only for hiring more teachers, which means the government would have to top that up a further 20 per cent to meet the terms it has signed with CUPE.
Glen Hansman, first vice-president of the BCTF, said the government's new emphasis on educators in this round of bargaining is part of a "crass" bid to sour relations between the two unions.
He said teachers have a good working relationship with EAs in the school system, but he noted that the government has been shifting resources from teaching professionals to less-qualified educational assistants for more than a decade.
"That's problematic. What the system needs is more restoration of specialist teachers," he said.
CUPE BC president Mark Hancock said the government has been trying a divide-and-conquer strategy since the teachers' strike shut down schools last June. "There is no doubt the government is trying to drive a wedge," he said in an interview.
His union's executive has endorsed a new contract that would give CUPE members a wage increase that is in line with other public-sector unions, plus additional money to hire more educational assistants. He said, however, his members will remain on the teachers' picket line as long as necessary.
"It is getting expensive, but we're supporting our members who are supporting teachers on the picket lines and we will last one day longer than the government," he said.
The teachers' union and the government have been locked in a fight over class composition since 2002, when Ms. Clark served as minister of education and stripped the teachers of their right to bargain class size and composition.
Since that time, the Liberal government has quietly shifted a growing share of education resources to CUPE members. While the number of teachers has declined 10 per cent since 2001, the number of educational assistants has risen 42 per cent.
On the weekend, veteran mediator Vince Ready walked away from the table saying the two sides are too far apart. Half-a-million B.C. students missed what was supposed to be the first week of school.