The head of the union representing B.C.'s public-school teachers is optimistic that new teaching staff could be in classrooms by the end of this month as part of a court-ordered settlement with the provincial government.
Glen Hansman, president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, said on Wednesday an interim agreement is within reach this week that could put hundreds of additional teaching staff in place in the coming weeks in schools across the province.
Talks began last November between the BCTF and the B.C. Public School Employers' Association – the bargaining agent for British Columbia's 60 school districts – to implement a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that legislation the B.C. Liberal government enacted 15 years ago wrongly stripped the teachers' contract.
The court ruling means contract language related to class size and composition that was removed in 2002 is back. However, the language varied from school district to school district, and restoring it is a complex task.
Mr. Hansman said the short-term goal is to get more teachers into the schools in the current year, but it will take more time to determine how the ruling will be reflected in the current provincewide contract.
"Realistically, we acknowledge this is going to be a massive human-resources undertaking, particularly in rural and remote areas," he said in an interview. "But we are hoping we can make some changes now that will mean significant improvements in the current year."
He said it is too early to say how many teachers could be hired for this year, but even one for each school would require about 1,600 new positions.
The easier task is adding specialist teachers such as school counsellors, learning assistants and librarians, who provide direct support to students, because that would not require re-organizing classrooms. But Mr. Hansman said some classes could be split to reduce the number of students in each one – although another option is to add teachers to assist in existing classes.
Mr. Hansman said once the interim agreement is in place, the next step is to sort out what the school year that begins next September will look like. The process of setting up classrooms begins in April, which means decisions will need to be locked down quickly.
He added there is no shortage of qualified teachers ready to take up new positions in B.C. schools.
"We have a lot of people who have languished as teachers-on-call who are keen to get full- or part-time positions. There are many in part-time who would jump at opportunity for more hours. There might be people who will come back from retirement," Mr. Hansman said. As well, specialized classroom teachers are also available.
The provincial government defended its legislation in the courts throughout the legal battle that began in 2002 and ended last November in the Supreme Court of Canada. Now, the province promises to honour the court ruling – a commitment that is made easier given the current budget surplus.
The disputed clauses had limited class size (the number of students in each classroom) and composition (the number of special needs students in each classroom).
Education Minister Mike Bernier was not available for comment on Wednesday. In a statement, an education ministry spokesperson said talks continue to be positive and productive.
"As part of the restoration process, we are taking a hard look at the old language with the BCTF to negotiate how we can modernize it – that way any changes to classrooms will be more reflective of the current reality," the statement said. "We have to find a way that is both practical and appropriate for the education system we have today."
The adversarial relationship between the provincial government and the teachers' union spans decades, but took a different tone after a new six-year contract was signed in the fall of 2014. That contract ended a protracted, province-wide strike and included a provision to reopen negotiations depending on the outcome of the court challenge related to class size and composition.