Any hope of long-term labour peace in B.C's public schools dimmed Tuesday after the government vowed to appeal a court judgment that restores teachers' bargaining rights, saying the ruling could cost taxpayers $1-billion at a time when the province is struggling to balance its budget.
Contract talks between public school teachers and their employers now resume on Feb. 12 under hostile terms. For students, parents and those who manage the province's 60 school districts, it means uncertainty ahead.
On Tuesday, Education Minister Peter Fassbender announced his government will seek to overturn a B.C. Supreme Court order that the teachers' working conditions are restored to pre-2002 levels. While the appeal process could take years to complete, he said educators should carry on with the same working conditions and funding levels that are currently in place.
"The judgment is completely unaffordable for taxpayers," he told a news conference, saying it would cost the treasury "upwards of $1-billion" to restore classrooms to the contract language that existed a dozen years ago.
Mr. Fassbender urged the teachers' union to return to the bargaining table to negotiate a ten-year contract that would improve stability for the education system.
Prospects for a deal that would span a decade, however, appear further from reach now, especially after Justice Susan Griffin concluded the B.C. Liberals were more interested in provoking a strike than bargaining with teachers in good faith.
"Your government conspired to shut B.C. schools down," BCTF president Jim Iker said at a news conference on Tuesday, directing his comments to the Education Minister. "It was outrageous, cynical, and British Columbians should be angry."
The union leader called the government's decision to appeal "sad, disappointing but entirely predictable from a government that cannot be trusted to put education before politics."
In 2002, the Liberal government passed legislation to take away contract language that limited class size and classroom composition (the number of special needs students in each classroom). Twice since then, the B.C. Supreme Court has ruled that the government trampled the rights of teachers, and last week the court declared that the law limiting teachers' rights to negotiate their working conditions is no longer in effect.
Union negotiators will head back to the table to bargain according to the law as set out by Justice Griffin, which could unleash a flood of official grievances launched by the tens of thousands of teachers who were affected by the changes imposed by the Liberals in 2002.
B.C. school trustees are now seeking legal advice to determine whether they now have to hire scores of teachers to meet the terms of the old contract language – even as the government refuses to offer up more education funds.
"It's a hot pot. There is a lot of pressure on school boards," said BC School Trustees Association president Teresa Rezansoff in an interview. She said it is not clear yet what reverting back to previous contracts would look like, or if school boards can simply ignore the B.C. Supreme Court pending an appeal. "We are into our budgeting cycle and we have some tight timelines."
While the B.C. Liberal government has argued that it cannot afford to restore the contract terms that limited class size and composition, that is not grounds for an appeal. Instead, the province will ask the B.C. Court of Appeal to establish that teachers' Charter freedoms do not trump the government's obligation to manage the public purse. "We need clarity on what government's rights are," Mr. Fassbender told reporters.
He rejected Justice Griffin's "interpretation" of the facts of the case, saying his government did in fact bargain in good faith with the union, and that the Charter's guarantee of freedom to associate does not override the government's duty to make policy.
"The judgment centred on the union's interests, not students' needs," he said. "We are proud of our track record in education and we intend to build on it."