Province forces solution in teachers' contract negotiations By Andy Stonehouse The provincial government has stepped in to bring what is expected to be a smooth end to recent struggles over a new contract for B.C.'s teachers, although local school trustees say they are not convinced that the deal will do what’s best for students. Education Minister Paul Ramsey introduced legislation on June 25 to force a settlement to the contract issue, confirming the agreement negotiated by the government and the teachers' union. While the province's teachers had heartily endorsed the new contract, trustees voted 87.6 percent against the deal, complaining that they had been left out of the negotiations. Ramsey's legislation, which went into effect on July 1, will provide an additional 1,200 teachers in classrooms across the province over the next three years, with 450 new teachers to be in place in classrooms by the fall. Approximately $370 million has been earmarked to build more than 1,000 new classrooms across the province in the next five years, which should help to keep a roof over the head of all the new staff. The deal will also see an investment of $150 million to help reduce classroom sizes in kindergarten and Grades 1 to 3, an issue which was one of the main sticking points in the negotiations. Funding will also be provided for librarians, counsellors, and English as second language teachers. Under the details of the legislated agreement, teachers will see no salary increase until April 1, 2000, at which point $50 million in funding will allow for a 2 per cent pay hike. A total of $75 million is earmarked over the next three years to hire 700 additional classroom teachers to reduce maximum class sizes in the primary grades to 20 students in kindergarten and 22 students in Grades 1 through 3. According to the education ministry, any inflexibility in class sizes will be limited to the first month of the school year. Schools are supposed to be able to provide additional room for new students after Sept. 30, at which point classroom enrolments have been confirmed. Howe Sound school trustee Andrée Janyk said that while trustees will do their best to make sure the new agreement will work, she remains skeptical that the deal will serve the best interests of students and parents. "We feel that the language of this agreement will open us up to grievances... there will be times when we can't meet the costs," she said. "It's a disappointment that we are not going to have the option to go back to the table. We didn't even know about the $150 million for classroom size reduction. It seems (the government) trusts us with administrating the cuts but not with new money." Janyk said she still feels that the final arrangements to help pare down local student-teacher ratios are too inflexible and will produce additional costs. "We have concerns about the class sizes, and if we can't meet them, there are no ‘fudge lines.’ And there will be bussing costs if we have to move students to another school, or money if we have to install new portables. We had hoped that reason would prevail." In a release issued last week, education minister Ramsey said that the legislation was enacted to help prevent the possibility of a teachers' strike, especially as it appeared there was little hope of trustees and the teachers' union coming to a quick agreement. Ramsey said the trustees were unable to provide a concrete alternative to the teachers' agreement and seemed unwilling to budge on the issue of lowering classroom sizes for the youngest students. Previous to the announcement, Howe Sound teachers passed a motion on June 11 requesting a ministry audit of the local school board, based on accusations that the local school district has one of the worst student to educator ratios in the province.