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B.C. taking time to weigh court ruling on teachers’ rights

Minister of Education Peter Fassbender talks with media after meeting individually with BC School Trustees' Association, thhe BC Teachers' Federation and the BC Public School Employers' Association in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on Monday, June 20, 2013.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Education Minister Peter Fassbender said on Thursday it will take some time to decide if his government will appeal a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that found the province's laws to strip teachers' contracts unconstitutional.

The decision is significant for the province's public school system, and for Finance Minister Mike de Jong, who will present his next provincial budget on Feb. 19. Major spending decisions would have been locked down weeks ago. However, the B.C. Supreme Court ruling on Monday will, if it stands, mean big changes for the province's finances. The $2-million penalty the court imposed is little more than a rounding error compared to the other potential costs. Mr. de Jong's hard-fought balanced budget could be wiped out. An appeal would at the very least defer the problem.

Mr. Fassbender told reporters on Thursday that for now, the school boards must plan their budgets with the status quo. "It's a 150-page decision which is not without complexity. … We're not going to rush into making any final decision."

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Here are some key factors the province is weighing:

What does "retroactive" mean?

Justice Susan Griffin struck down the legislation that denied B.C. teachers the right to negotiate working conditions in 2002. "This means that the legislatively deleted terms in the teachers' collective agreement have been restored retroactively," she wrote.

There is no way to go back and put more councillors and teacher-librarians in the schools, so that likely means a financial liability. Neither the B.C. Teachers' Federation nor the provincial government will put a price on that. The court heard that the province believed it was exposed to a $500-million liability.

That may be a wild guess: tens of thousands of teachers were affected by the legislation, and under this ruling they can launch grievances for working conditions that violated the contract that existed before 2002. Those grievances would be settled through arbitration.

When would the province account for any retroactive payments?

If the costs were assigned to the current fiscal year, Mr. de Jong's forecast $165-million surplus would evaporate.

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The B.C. Liberals promised in the May, 2013, election to balance the budget, and would likely prefer to bury any costs in years past. The final figure will not be known until long after the books have closed on the year that ends March 31.


What does this ruling mean for current contract talks?

Justice Griffin stressed that the details need to be worked out by the parties. The trial heard the province believed returning to the previous standards could cost $200-million to $275-million a year. The BCTF stated that restoring class size and composition (the number of special-needs students in each classroom) was worth $275-million in annual funding. But those figures are difficult to pin down – public schools have 70,000 fewer students today than in 2002, and more money is being provided for special-needs students.

Budget numbers aside, the BCTF will return to the bargaining table on Feb. 6 expecting to talk about class size and composition while the government wants a 10-year contract. The two sides remain far apart.

Is there room for compromise?

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There is a parallel case with the health-care unions. After the court found the province's contract-stripping in the health sector infringed the Charter, the negotiated settlement did not break the bank. The collective agreements were amended to address the unconstitutional legislation, and the province paid $84-million to the unions. In exchange, affected union members waived claims and grievances.

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