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British Columbia B.C. warns of chaos, layoffs if court ruling on teachers can’t be stayed

A lawyer for the B.C. government of Premier Christy Clark says the school system could be thrown into disarray if a recent ruling against the government is enforced.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government has asked an appeal court to stay a recent court ruling the government says will result in significant disruptions and the potential shuttering of schools and specialty programs if allowed to stand.

Karen Horsman, a lawyer for the province, argued the Jan. 27 ruling in favour of the B.C. Teachers' Federation would not only cause financial problems, but also harm students and parents in the restructuring it says would be necessary as a result.

The government wants the ruling put on hold, arguing schools are planning the coming school year now and wouldn't have time to adjust if the government wins its case. Court heard an appeal might not be complete until July.

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Last month, Justice Susan Griffin ordered the government to reinstate elements of its contract with teachers from 2002, clauses that would reduce class sizes and increase support for students with special needs. Ms. Horsman said that would be prohibitively expensive. Several school districts from around the province said in affidavits that complying with the ruling would likely result in the closing of programs specializing in areas such as fine arts, or possibly force the closing of some schools.

But the BCTF argued against the stay, saying the government's numbers are speculative.

The case revolves around a decision by the B.C. government in 2002 to remove the ability of teachers to negotiate class sizes and composition in their contracts. The court found this to be unconstitutional in 2011, and Justice Griffin gave the government a year to fix the problem. The government introduced new legislation, but the union took the government back to court and Justice Griffin concluded in her ruling last month that the government had bargained in bad faith and was actually working to provoke a strike. Justice Griffin ordered the 2002 provisions reinstated immediately, and she also ordered the government to pay the BCTF $2-million in damages.

The government is also asking the appeal court to seal the teachers' closing argument to Justice Griffin, which includes information from confidential cabinet documents that were never made public. The teachers' union asked Justice Griffin to allow the closing argument to be distributed to its members and the judge agreed, although she gave the government a month to appeal that decision.

Some of the information was released in the legislature by the NDP.

BCTF president Jim Iker said based on his reading of the recently announced 2014-2015 budget, the government can afford to follow Justice Griffin's ruling.

"They're projecting surpluses … so yes, there is money," Mr. Iker said. "[But] what we seem to be hearing from government is that government doesn't want smaller class sizes for students, they don't want to see more specialist teachers working with students, they don't want more individual attention [for special needs students], and we think that's just not right."

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Mr. Iker said B.C.'s education system is one of the most poorly funded in Canada on a per-student basis, second only to Prince Edward Island. He said there is about $1,000 less funding per B.C. student than the Canadian average.

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