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B.C. appeal court puts classroom changes on hold

B.C. Education Minister of Education Peter Fassbender talks with media Monday, June 20, 2013. On Wednesday, Feb. 26, the British Columbia Court of Appeal temporarily suspended a Supreme Court ruling that the Liberal government had bargained in bad faith and unconstitutionally stripped the province’s teachers of their contractual rights.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The size and composition of B.C.'s classrooms will remain as they are – for now – after an appeal court judge granted the provincial government a temporary stay in its case against the B.C. Teachers' Federation.

The government had argued that retroactively restoring class size and composition language it removed from teachers' contracts a dozen years ago – a move a B.C. Supreme Court judge twice deemed unconstitutional – would create chaos. The change would require costly new infrastructure, disrupt school programs and cost $1-billion to implement, the government said.

On Wednesday, a B.C. Court of Appeal judge agreed, putting the matter on hold until the government's appeal is heard, likely in May or June. In a written judgment, Justice David Harris said while the interests of the BCTF in the implementation of the judgment are significant, they are "outweighed by the magnitude of the irreparable harm arising from not granting the stay."

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Justice Harris also granted a stay on a ruling from the lower court that permitted the union to distribute to members the complete version of its closing arguments. That document is more than 200 pages and includes materials from secret cabinet documents that led Justice Susan Griffin to conclude last month that the government had tried to provoke a school strike for political gain. For that, the Justice Griffin ordered the government to pay the union $2-million in damages.

"The appeal involves serious issues regarding the tension between public access to the court and protecting cabinet confidentiality," Justice Harris wrote. "If the un-redacted submissions are distributed before the appeal is heard, the province will have suffered irreparable harm if the appeal is allowed."

B.C. education minister Peter Fassbender welcomed the ruling and said it will bring stability to the public school system.

"Needless to say we think the ruling is appropriate," he told reporters in Victoria. "What I am again focusing on is, we need to get back to the bargaining table."

Jim Iker, president of the BCTF, said the union respects the court's decision and hopes the government will agree to expedite the appeal hearing.

The B.C. School Trustees Association "welcomed" the decision: "Through the stay ruling, there is recognition of the disruption that would have been felt by the public education system and Boards of Education had there been immediate implementation of the January 27 ruling."

In affidavits in support of the government's appeal, several school districts outlined some of the estimates of what a return to pre-2002 classroom levels would cost. Surrey, for example, said it would need to hire 445 teachers and 273 non-enrolling teachers – such as counsellors and teacher-librarians – at a cost of $40-million for the first year. It would need another $4.5-million to move and prepare 60 additional portable classrooms, superintendent Jordan Tinney said.

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In Abbotsford, a return to pre-2002 levels would require the district to hire about 63 teachers and 29 non-enrolling teachers at a cost of $8.6-million, superintendent Kevin Godden said. An additional 21 portable classrooms would cost $2.6-million.

Mr. Fassbender thanked the school districts that provided affidavits, saying those statements about the potential impact of implementing the Supreme Court decision were key in winning this round. Mr. Iker questioned whether school districts were instructed to inflate costs.

Premier Christy Clark told reporters in Victoria she still hopes to see a 10-year contract negotiated with teachers, even with no new education money in the budget.

The provincial budget does include a contingency fund that would allow for some wage increases in contract talks, but that pot of money also needs to provide for a variety of other unplanned expenses such as fighting forest fires.

"We don't book things in the budget that we can't predict … but there is room in contingencies for wages across the public sector so it doesn't foreclose the negotiation of increases."

However, she added: "It needs to be affordable, because British Columbia's economy is still slow and I don't want to have to go back to taxpayers and ask for more money to be able to fund that. So we're going to continue to be creative."

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Meanwhile, the BCTF has scheduled a strike vote for March 4-6, with results to be announced on the evening of March 6. Mr. Iker – who says it is "very, very likely" to pass – said the union had no other choice following the government's unfair and unreasonable proposals.

"We've gone out of our way to keep what's happening at the table at the table," Mr. Iker said. "But when you have government – Christy Clark and Peter Fassbender – talking about labour stability and peace and working with the BCTF … but their negotiators are doing the exact opposite, we have to go public with that."

Mr. Fassbender downplayed the threat of job action. "In negotiations there are tools and tactics that parties will use, they have chosen to use this one, we are continuing to ask them, 'come to the table, meet with us,' " he said.

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About the Authors
News reporter

Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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