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Supreme Court sides with teachers in class-size ruling

BCTF estimates $300M needed to restore staffing to 2002 levels


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A Supreme Court of Canada decision ordering the B.C. government to restore teacher contract provisions around class size and composition has been met with a wide range of emotions from teachers, according to the local teachers rep.

"Relief, frustration, joy," said Steve Lloyd, president of the Sea to Sky Teachers Association. "It was a vindication of where we've been standing since 2002."

That was the year the British Columbia Teachers' Federation (BCTF) originally challenged new legislation brought in by the Liberal government under former premier Gordon Campbell. The new laws took away teachers' rights to negotiate class size and composition.

After 14 years of rulings and appeals, the Supreme Court sided with the teachers in a Nov. 10 ruling, saying the legislation is unconstitutional.

The decision restores the contract language from 2002.

"So what that means... is that we'll be able to offer smaller classes, more support for children with special needs and extra help for all students as we used to be able to do," Lloyd said.

"It's quite a bit of relief and joy, and some regret too — a little bit of anger over 15 lost years."

Premier Christy Clark has said the government has $100 million set aside to achieve that, but the BCTF estimates it will take about $300 million to restore staffing to 2002 levels.

The shortfall will likely lead to some discussions about where the money will come from, but Lloyd said the government shouldn't have a problem finding it if it wants to.

"The government has money. It's always had money. It's just been putting it to other things. Rather than social services, health care, public education, it's chosen to put them to its own priorities, which governments do," he said, pointing to things like the $10-billion Site C dam project, $3 billion for the Port Mann interchange and billions spent on the Olympics in 2010.

"(This decision) shouldn't cause any new impact on citizens' wallets."

But what the government will actually do with the decision remains to be seen, said Sea to Sky School District superintendent Lisa McCullough.

"We haven't been given any information other than that they're going to start talking right away, and we don't even know whether they'll come out with 60 different provisions, or whether there will be one common provision," McCullough said.

"I really can't predict what their negotiations around this are actually going to look like, so I would assume there would be an implication for class size and I would assume there will be some implications for various elements of the composition language as well."

The district should be able to find teachers to fill the new roles easily enough, but could have trouble finding specialists, McCullough said.

But with new curriculums in full swing, rigid definitions around class size and composition may no longer be so applicable, she added.

"I think that's going to be one of the most interesting things to watch: Can we make that old language fit a more modern approach to teaching and learning?" she said.

"I think it's going to be determined by how they negotiate these terms, and how they interpret that language in today's world. There's a lot of language in there around certain areas of special education that we just don't apply to our system anymore."