The B.C. government has struck a deal with its teachers' union that provides $50-million for districts to hire up to 1,100 full-time employees, including classroom teachers who will be added to schools during the current year.
The agreement will also fund the hiring of specialists such as teacher librarians and counsellors. The interim deal is the first step in complying with a November ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada that sided with the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) in a battle over contract language related to the size and composition of classes.
A final agreement on how to implement the restoration of the contracts – and the costs of doing so – is likely to be postponed until after the provincial election in May, although the government is likely to include the potential spending in its upcoming budget.
"We're not announcing a final agreement or a final resolution – there's still a lot of crucial work to get full restoration of all of our local and provincial [contract] language that was unconstitutionally legislated away in 2002," BCTF president Glen Hansman said on Thursday at a news conference.
"While the new funding announced today is badly needed, and will help many teachers and students, the government will have to provide significantly more funding to meet the requirements of the Supreme Court of Canada's ruling," he added.
"The onus is now on government to ensure the Feb. 21 provincial budget contains the necessary funding to make full restoration possible."
Asked how much that would cost, Mr. Hansman said the BCTF's estimate is about $300-million a year.
The province's current annual budget for education is about $5.1-billion.
On a conference call with reporters, B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier declined to speculate on how much a final settlement would cost or when it might be reached.
"I think it's everybody's hope that the sooner we can resolve this, the better, but it may take some time," Mr. Bernier said.
In 2002, provincial government legislation stripped language related to class size and composition from teachers' contracts and took away their right to negotiate those issues in future bargaining.
Over the ensuing years, school districts eliminated hundreds of jobs, resulting in complaints about substandard classroom conditions and overburdened teachers.
The BCTF launched a legal challenge, and the epic battle wound through two B.C. courts to the Supreme Court of Canada, which in effect upheld a lower court ruling that the B.C. government bargained in bad faith with the union.
The agreement says the Ministry of Education will provide $50-million in new funding for the current school year, which is the equivalent of 1,000 to 1,100 full-time teachers.
That will be used to hire classroom teachers, as well as specialists such as counsellors, speech language pathologists and teacher librarians.
Where it is not feasible to hire new teachers in the current school year, the money can be used for other support for teachers at the school district level, such as mentoring or upgrading programs.
Boards of education will have to use the money for the priorities outlined.
The two sides will now negotiate how to bring conditions in schools closer to what they were before the dispute.
The Supreme Court of Canada had been expected to take months to reach a decision, but after deliberating for less than an hour, it delivered an oral ruling and set the stage for an injection of money and employees into the public school system.
Rob Fleming, the education critic for the Opposition New Democrats, said the money will help the school system but was obtained only because of the teachers' long and hard-fought court battle.
"I think [Premier] Christy Clark is trying to convince British Columbians that she now cares about education," he said in an interview. "The BC Liberals have spent the last 16 years closing schools, delaying seismic upgrades and denying help for kids' learning needs. … Christy Clark can't be trusted with your child's future."
The $50-million interim agreement is for BCTF positions and does not include members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees who lost their jobs as a result of contract-stripping.