Signalling that even modest wage increases won't fly in a time of fiscal restraint, the B.C. government appears to have taken another step toward a legislated end to a teachers job dispute.
"Had we negotiated wage increases of 2 per cent per year instead of net zero, we would be facing nearly $3-billion worth of additional debt in this fiscal plan – and there is no way we would be balancing the budget in 2013-14," Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said on Tuesday.
"So the unions that have accepted net zero deserve full credit for accepting the challenge of helping the province keep spending in check."
Most public-sector unions have now completed two years of net-zero compensation increases, Mr. Falcon added, without mentioning the biggest holdout – the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, whose members have been engaged in a labour dispute since the beginning of the school year in September.
The BCTF, which on Monday called for an independent mediator to resolve the logjam, has argued that its members need a wage increase to keep up with inflation and to make up for lost ground to teachers in other, higher-paid jurisdictions.
Mr. Falcon threw cold water on that possibility, saying the province is "not prepared to borrow money to pay for public-sector wage increases today and send the bill to our children tomorrow."
The tough-times budget also calls on school districts to save money through shared-service plans – along the lines of bulk buying – and for colleges and universities to scrutinize their travel, administration and executive budgets for potential savings.
The budget calls for $4.7-billion a year for school districts over the next three years, an amount the BCTF said would put more pressure on already pinched school boards.
"This represents a $100-million cut to the province's education system," BCTF president Susan Lambert said in Victoria.
"This will mean deep, deep cuts for every school board across the province. This will mean increased class sizes, fewer supports for children with special needs. It's an incredibly short-sighted budget that will see this government take its fiscal priorities out on the schoolchildren of the province."
The budget also calls for $165-million over three years to address class composition issues.
That falls short of the more than $300-million a year the BCTF says was gutted from the education system through contract-stripping 2002 legislation, parts of which were later found to be unconstitutional.
Class composition is a big concern for Amber Schultz, an elementary school teacher in Vancouver.
"I have taught in 10 different schools all over the district," Ms. Schultz said on Tuesday. "And class composition has been an issue in every class I've taught in since I started in 2007."
Ms. Schultz, 29, has been teaching full-time for five years. The issues – including a shortage of specialized teaching assistants – are the same in schools across the city, whether in relatively well-off neighbourhoods or in inner-city classrooms, she added.
In some cases, it can take a year or more to get an assessment from school-based teams that are supposed to co-ordinate services for special-needs students, Ms. Schultz said.
In other cases, assessments call for supports or services that are stretched or not available.
"The students who are able to meet or exceed the expectations – they do well," she said. "The ones who are struggling – that's where we spend a lot of our time. And those middle-of-the-road students – it's almost like they fall between the cracks."
In his budget speech, Mr. Falcon cited education successes, including more aboriginal students completing high school. The completion rate is now 54 per cent, up 11 percentage points from 2001.
Earlier this month, the province appointed Trevor Hughes, assistant deputy minister of industrial relations, as a fact-finder in the teachers labour dispute. His deadline is Feb. 23.
With a report from Sunny Dhillon in Victoria