School District caught in the middle of labour dispute

Mike Carter, Chetwynd Echo


DAWSON CREEK – As the political positioning continues amidst ongoing bargaining table negotiations between the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) and the British Columbia Public Service Employers Association (BCPSEA), Richard Powell, chair of the School District 59 Board of Education says they are caught in the middle.

Powell made the comments last week following the board’s meeting in Dawson Creek, at which Peace River South Teachers Association president Lorraine MacKay made a presentation refuting Education Minister Peter Fassbender’s reasoning behind the government’s decision to appeal a court ruling in favour of teachers rights to negotiate class sizes and class composition.

“Unfortunately, there are two sides to this,” Powell said.

“The government has their side and their data, which contradicts the BCTF data. So, what I see happening with us is we get caught in the middle. Regardless of the labour scene, we want to continue to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of students and continuing out those [education initiatives in place] and we’re going to continue to do that.”

MacKay’s presentation was mainly in response to government data behind its rationale to appeal the BC Supreme Court ruling handed down in late January 2014.

“The government has failed to address the cost pressures that you as districts are having to address,” MacKay stated. “The result has been an ongoing structural shortfall.”

Minister Fassbender, in a release from early February, said the government’s decision to appeal is based on a practical calculation that the judgment is “completely unaffordable for taxpayers.”

The government says the cost of reverting class sizes and composition to 2002 levels, as prescribed by the January ruling, would be astronomical.

MacKay says the BCTF’s position focuses instead on the consistent underfunding of education.

According to BCTF data, BC is $1,000 below the national average of per student public education funding.

“When you look at the operating expenditures from all across Canada you’ll see that BC is the province that invests the least of our money in education except for Prince Edward Island,” MacKay said.

“Where we’re providing operating expenditures of $10,405 per student the national average is about $11,393 and when we look at Alberta, they are up to about $12,201, which is about $1,800 per student more than BC.”

But Fassbender maintains that over the past 13 years annual funding has actually increased by a total of $1 billion, even while student enrolment has declined by 9.4 per cent.

“We’ve increased supports for students with special needs, including a 36 per cent increase in the number of full-time education assistants,” Fassbender said. “Average class sizes are near historical lows of 19.3 students for kindergarten, 21.5 for grades one to three, 25.7 for grades four to seven and 23 for grades eight to 12. To put that in perspective in 1970 the average class size was 42.”

This contradicts information MacKay presented to the Board of Education.

“Way back in 2006 and 2007 when you just look at kindergarten classes, the average was 17.5 students per kindergarten class and now its up to 19.3,” MacKay said. “We have the same situation in grades one to three. Grades four to seven stayed the same, [but] grades 8-12 dropped a bit.”

The province is falling behind the rest of the country in student-to-educator ratios MacKay noted.

“The national average in 2010-11 was 13.8 students-per-educator. In BC it is 16.8 students-per-educator. So that is a significant difference. Our student-to-educator ratio was the worst in Canada in 2010-11. The people who actually suffer are the kids who are in the classroom because they are not getting the support. They are not getting the smaller classes and more face-to-face time.”

Fassbender said he hopes the concerns over class size and composition will be decided at the bargaining table, regardless of the outcome of the government’s appeal of the decision to allow teachers to negotiate these two aspects of their contractual obligations.

“Class size and composition are on the bargaining table, and that is where the discussion needs to occur,” he said. “Negotiations with the BCTF will continue and our goal remains a 10-year agreement that creates labour stability for students, parents, teachers and communities.”

For Powell, being caught in the middle means all that the Board of Education can do is try and make sure things remain as stable as they can be for students and parents.

“We’re caught in the middle of what impact does a local district have on the big provincial scene and we do have our voice through the BC Trustees Association, we do get information and we’re about to give them feedback but, again, we could have asked questions of Lorraine about what does that mean locally what impact it has on our district and so on.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with job action,” he added. “We have no idea what that means or when it will be implemented or what impact it will have but it will have an impact on kids, doesn’t matter what intensity it is but any job action will have an impact on kids so we want to minimize as best we can.”