Half-a-million B.C. students missed what was supposed to be the first day of school Tuesday as the teachers' strike that began last term continued, and despite rhetoric from both sides over costs and consequences, negotiators say the biggest stumbling block is a single clause that would commit both sides to talks around class size and composition.
Proposal E80, introduced in June by negotiators for the provincial government, would bring both sides to the table on learning and working conditions in the classroom. The government says the goal is to negotiate new language on how many teachers should staff classrooms across the province.
But teachers maintain any agreement to more negotiation would effectively strip them of everything they've won in court since 2002, when class size and composition were removed from their collective agreements. Two court rulings, the latest this January, have found the government violated teachers' rights when then-education minister Christy Clark removed the language without consultation. The government has appealed and the case is to be heard in October with a ruling not expected until early 2015.
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
"The key issue is to resolve issues of class size and composition," said union president Jim Iker. "That's why I'm asking government to drop E80. That proposal represents the status quo. It has no new funding for our students and it asks us to negotiate our court decision away."
The government says E80 is an effort to set things right and begin talks anew on how B.C.'s classrooms should be run. The union says it's already won the debate and the clock should be turned back to 2002 before it is willing to bargain again.
His throat sore after a last-minute negotiating effort failed over the weekend, Mr. Iker called on the government to immediately turn over funding to school districts if it loses its appeal. The government has said returning to 2002 staffing levels could cost over $1-billion over three years.
The clause at issue states that government negotiators acknowledge "class size, class composition and specialist teacher staffing ratios are appropriate matters for collective bargaining."
Instead of E80, the union wants the government to commit to a $225-million fund as an interim measure.
Peter Cameron, the government's chief negotiator, says that no agreement is likely, perhaps for weeks. While Mr. Iker says both sides are close to an agreement, Mr. Cameron maintains they are far apart on everything from small technical issues to the bigger issues, such as preparation time and E80.
The last round of negotiations failed when veteran mediator Vince Ready found that both sides were too far apart for a deal to be possible.
Mr. Cameron said the union's approach at the bargaining table was to not agree on anything related to class size and composition in the hopes that the levels last seen in 2002 would be restored by default.
"The bigger issue is their affront that we even proposed E80, that somehow proposing putting class size and composition into the agreement is contrary to the court decision," said Mr. Cameron.
"It's an enormous amount of nonsense," said Mr. Cameron, who described reintroducing the 2002 language as "disastrous."
The 2002 contract language set hard ratios on the number of teachers, librarians and other assistants in schools, as well as caps on how many students should be in classrooms, particularly special-needs students.
Much of the language was first negotiated in the late 1980s and remains unchanged, despite new teaching practices, the widespread introduction of new technology and changes in the diagnosing of special needs.
In the conclusion to her 2014 decision in the B.C. Supreme Court, Justice Susan Griffin wrote that while she called for the retroactive restoration of certain language, "this does not guarantee that the language is clad in stone, as it can and likely will need to be the subject of ongoing collective bargaining."
But details about the sticking points aren't top of mind for B.C. students desperate to get back into class.
"It's so stressful. If we can't get to classes, we can't get our grades and we can't apply to university," said Queena Zeng, who would be starting Grade 12 at Steveston-London Secondary School in Richmond, B.C.
"Everyone is just waiting for something, anything, to happen."