In what could prove to be a swan song of sorts, B.C. Education Minister George Abbott told reporters on a back-to-school conference call that he hoped for a positive start to the academic year and a break in the wrangling that dominated the provincial education scene last year.
"We're hoping that this year will be a much more positive, harmonious year in terms of labour relations," Mr. Abbott said on Tuesday.
"I'm hoping that this year gives us an opportunity to try to build at least a little better relationship between government and the teachers' federation."
Mr. Abbott, a long-serving MLA who lost his bid for the Liberal leadership to Premier Christy Clark in 2011, is widely expected to not run in the next election but would not confirm that decision.
"I have not made a final decision on that but I will not be keeping you in suspense for long," he said.
Mr. Abbott, who was first elected as an MLA in 1996, has headed several ministries, including health and aboriginal relations.
As education minister, he was in charge during a high-profile labour dispute that reverberated throughout the province. At the beginning of the last academic year, with contract talks stalled, teachers were engaged in job action that included withdrawing from some tasks, such as supervising recess and preparing report cards.
In March, after a three-day legal walkout by members of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, the government passed Bill 22, legislation that imposed a six-month cooling-off period and brought in a mediator for talks between the BCTF and the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, the bargaining agent for B.C.'s 60 school boards.
In June, BCTF members approved a new contract, which runs until June 30, 2013. The union maintains the agreement does not do enough to address a 2010 B.C. Supreme Court judgment that found previous education legislation – passed in 2002 – to be unconstitutional.
When bargaining resumes this spring, issues that dogged the last round of talks – including teachers' compensation and classroom size and composition – will again be front and centre.
Asked whether he was concerned that ongoing labour turmoil might turn some families away from public education, Mr. Abbott said enrolment numbers have shown a "modest drift" from public schools to private institutions, which in B.C. are partly funded by the province.
"We have a responsibility for providing education to all children – regardless of whether they're in the public system, private, independent or denominational," he said, adding that numbers for this fall could show an additional uptick in private school enrolment.
"I would suspect given the upheaval in labour relations last year, we might see a further modest drift but we wouldn't be able to confirm that until numbers settle in," he said.
According to figures released Tuesday by the ministry, province-wide public school enrolment is expected to be down by about 6,000 students this fall, to 535,000 full-time students.
With 60,000 fewer students in the province than there were a decade ago, it might make sense to merge some school districts, Mr. Abbott said.
The B.C. education plan, a province-wide initiative last year, has already resulted in some changes, including greater focus on early reading programs, he said. But detailed curriculum changes have yet to be drafted.