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Ruling will mean smaller class sizes, teachers say

B.C. Government announces it will appeal last week’s B.C. Supreme Court order to return to 2002 classroom rules

On the day the B.C. government announced they would appeal last week’s B.C. Supreme Court ruling in favour of the British Columbia Teachers’ Union (BCTF), the local union president took some time to talk to the Townsman about what the ruling means for teachers.

The January 27 decision rejects legislation restricting teacher bargaining and assesses a penalty of $2 million plus court costs.

Shelley Balfour, BCTF Local 02 president, said the ruling brings back the class size and composition levels stripped from collective bargaining back in 2002.

“It is important to note that, during the bargaining process leading up to this, teachers across B.C. had agreed to give up wage increases in order to ensure that class size and composition provisions would be addressed in legally binding contracts with government,” Balfour said.

So what can parents expect from the changes?

“According to the restored language, there should on average be two fewer children in most elementary classes,” she said. “High school shop and science class sizes will also need to be reduced to meet space and equipment considerations having to do with student safety and instruction.”

Staff such as librarians and counsellors will also have their teacher-to-student ratios reduced.

“In each of these cases this means students will receive more individual teacher support.”

She added that legally signed contracts were not adhered to and lead to the BCTF challenge in the first place.

“To discover that court documents show government was attempting to provoke a teachers strike during ‘negotiations’ a decade later simply adds insult to injury and should appall parents throughout the province.”

The B.C. Supreme Court ruling rejected the provincial government’s effort to keep class size and special needs support off the bargaining table with teachers, and ordered the government to pay $2 million in damages to the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

In a ruling released last week, Justice Susan Griffin said the B.C. government’s replacement legislation, passed in 2011, is as unconstitutional as the 2002 law called Bill 28 that removed class size and special needs support from union working conditions.

“The court concluded that the government did not negotiate in good faith with the union after the Bill 28 decision,” Griffin wrote. “One of the problems was that the government representatives were preoccupied with another strategy. Their strategy was to put such pressure on the union that it would provoke a strike by the union. The government representatives thought this would give government the opportunity to gain political support for imposing legislation on the union.”

Balfour said that despite severe budgetary constraints School District 5 has done what it could to minimize the impact of stripped class size and composition provisions on students and attempted to address these constraints within existing language.

“Unfortunately, repeated government disdain for legally bargained agreements has resulted in significantly reduced educational services to children, not only in the East Kootenay but throughout British Columbia. These reductions have been the norm for the past 12 years,” Balfour said.

However, the B.C. government will appeal a B.C. Supreme Court ruling ordering a return to 2002 classroom rules, Education Minister Peter Fassbender announced Tuesday.

Fassbender said the latest ruling could potentially cost the B.C. government more than $1 billion, which he called “completely unaffordable for taxpayers.” But the appeal will focus on Justice Susan Griffin’s interpretation of constitutional rights in union negotiations.

“Governments have to be able to govern,” Fassbender said, adding that no other province has has such restrictions on school organization.

“Most importantly, if the real goal is to benefit students, decades of academic research has shown that blankest reductions in class size are of little benefit,” he said.

With files from Tom Fletcher/Black Press