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B.C. teachers optimistic class sizes, composition will be addressed

Teacher Terry Stanway is pictured outside Vancouver Technical Secondary in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Feb. 21, 2017.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Terry Stanway finished teaching 30 students in his Grade 8 math class Tuesday with a little more optimism after indications the B.C. government is finally moving to address the fallout of a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision with more money for his classroom and all others across the province.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong announced an extra $740-million in new education spending over three years, $548-million of it forced on the government as a direct result of the teachers' years-long court fight against the B.C. Liberals' decision in 2002 to strip contract provisions around class sizes and composition.

A final agreement with the B.C. Teachers' Federation that would ensure the province fully complies with the Supreme Court's decision last year hasn't been nailed down, and Mr. de Jong said repeatedly Tuesday that he didn't want to presume the outcome of the talks by putting a final spending number in the budget.

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So far, Mr. Stanway says he's feeling hopeful. He said Tuesday he had been anticipating the government would use the budget to pre-emptively commit to the full costs of implementing the court ruling. But he said he was "guardedly optimistic" in light of comments from, in particular, BCTF president Glen Hansman.

He said the status before class sizes could no longer be negotiated was about 24 students, but the 30 students in his class today create challenges in giving them material designed to challenge them as well as helping special-needs students.

"It's really tough to do with 30 students. It's much more manageable with a smaller class size."

Julia MacRae, an English teacher in Surrey, said Tuesday that her class sizes had increased from 25 to 30 students. That, she said, complicated her efforts to provide the best education to students because she could not assign as many essays and other writing tasks as she would like and also provide feedback.

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"Each individual teacher has skin in the game," said Ms. MacRae, who has been teaching for 24 years.

Tuesday's budget includes a $320-million increase over the next three years for immediate adjustments to the system forced by the court ruling, as well as an extra $228-million to be added to an existing fund established in response to the court action.

Teachers have argued much more is needed to fulfill the court ruling and those talks are under way.

Mr. de Jong told a budget lockup news conference the government was happy to come to an interim agreement with teachers, but that he did not want to make comments that could influence "complicated talks."

"I am advised [that the talks] are productive and they are going well, and the parties are moving in the right direction. What I don't want to do, as part of this process, is jeopardize the prospect of success by suggesting unilaterally that I think the settlement will be X amount."

Mr. de Jong said all he could say is that there is "fiscal wherewithal" within government planning to deal with the issue raised by the court ruling but did not offer specifics.

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Mr. Hansman suggested the extra money could come from the budget's contingency allowance, which is about $350-million for this fiscal year. "Regardless of what number they identify in the budget, they need to make sure that school districts have the money to implement [the ruling]," Mr. Hansman said.

He said the goal is to ensure resources are deployed to B.C. classrooms by the start of the next school year. The BCTF has said that about 3,500 full-time jobs have been eliminated since 2002 as a result of the contract changes and insufficient funding.

Mr. de Jong touted an overall increase in education spending to $5.9-billion. Per-student funding, now at about $9,000, is expected to increase once it is calculated and disclosed next month.

The budget also includes $2-billion in capital spending for schools over the next three years – a figure that includes spending for seismic upgrades.

Smaller new pieces in the budget include $54-million in funding to both eliminate school bus fees for all regular students and to keep rural schools open.

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