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Few teachers to be hired in Vancouver, Surrey despite overcrowding

A teachers writes "welcome Back Students" on the chalkboard at Cameron Elementary school in Burnaby September 19, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Despite complaints of overcrowded classrooms, administrators in B.C.'s two largest school boards say only about 28 new teachers will be hired for the next school year as Surrey and Vancouver scramble to spend extra money made available after the teachers' strike.

The additional funding was the product of a six-year contract signed with the B.C. Teachers' Federation in mid-September that provides for $94-million in teaching and support staff funds across the province in 2014-2015.

As students returned to classrooms on Sept. 22, after a prolonged teachers' strike, the government and teachers' union said 850 full-time teachers would be hired annually as a result of the funds.

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However, administrators say most of the money was already expected under an existing program. The B.C. Ministry of Education says the figure of 850 new hires is only an estimate and spending decisions are up to each school district.

Since 2012, the B.C. government has allocated an increasing amount of money annually for school boards to hire teachers and increase hours of instruction. Known as the Learning Improvement Fund, the amount was planned at $75-million for the 2014-2015 school year.

Under the agreement in force until the end of the teachers' strike, 20 per cent of the LIF money had to be spent on support staff with the remainder earmarked for teachers. The government's deal with the BCTF in September retains the $75-million fund, but it is now reserved for teachers. The government topped up the fund with $19-million for support staff.

Surrey will hire 11 new teachers as a result of the new contract. That's in addition to the 56 new teachers and support staff the district was already planning for under LIF. The fast-growing system had expected as many as 150 new students to enroll in September – instead, about 300 new students showed up on the first day.

With 125 schools, the Surrey system has seen steady growth for decades and some schools have staggered their hours because they can't fit all their students at once.

"Our challenge for some time has been meeting our growth requirements, and that's been ongoing for the better part of 10 years," said Doug Strachan, spokesman for the Surrey district. Along with teachers, the district will be providing additional funding for support staff.

Despite the new hires, the system will start with fewer educators than it had at the end of the last school year. In June, the system cut 135 full-time positions – 49 of them teachers – as it looked to reduce its budget by $9-million. With school districts facing severe budgetary pressures due to flat funding and the need to present balanced budgets every June, layoffs have become a summer tradition for B.C. schools.

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In Vancouver, administrators cut $12-million from the school board's budget by laying off 67 adult educators – nearly half of the people in that position. The school board is looking at hiring an extra 17 teachers as a result of the new contract. That's in addition to the 60 the board was planning on hiring anyway, said Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus.

But the positions will be temporary, Ms. Bacchus said, and she added that the number of new hires is only a fraction of what the school board has sought.

The B.C. government is appealing a court ruling that found the removal of class size and composition language in the BCTF's contract in 2002 was unconstitutional. The union is seeking a return to spending levels close to 2002, when the BCTF was able to set staffing levels in schools.

While it files a balanced budget every summer, the Vancouver board also sends a budget with spending at 2002 levels to illustrate how government funding has dropped. Ms. Bacchus said more than $50-million would be required annually to restore the school board's budget.

"It isn't just teaching that's been cut; it's everywhere in the system from administration to building maintenance," she said.

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