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British Columbia School districts warn returning to pre-2002 class sizes would cause chaos

Robyn Thiessen works with students Mehar Shergill, 10, left, and Kabir Sidhu, 10, at Green Timbers Elementary School in Surrey, B.C., on Jan. 09, 2014. Robyn Thiessen is part of the pilot project which removes regular grades such as A, B, and C and is "grading" students by meeting with parents and doing student self-assessments.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

B.C. school districts are warning it will cost millions of dollars and cause classroom chaos if teachers' working conditions are returned to pre-2002 levels as a result of a court ruling.

The gloomy outlook was presented in 10 affidavits filed Friday as part of a package put forward by the B.C. Attorney-General, in a motion to the B.C. Court of Appeal. The province wants the court to put on hold two terms of a recent judgment by Justice Susan Griffin of the B.C. Supreme Court that it is appealing.

The ruling orders a return to class-size minimums and the number of special needs students per class – standards that were changed when the Liberals passed legislation in 2002. The court has ruled the law is no longer in effect.

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Over all, the B.C. Liberal government has said the ruling could cost taxpayers $1-billion, but the affidavits break down the costs per region covered.

In Surrey, B.C.'s largest school district, the school superintendent says the ruling would force it to fill 445 new full-time-equivalent positions to comply with 2002 language, at a cost of $40-million. Portables would also have to be added to accommodate new classes at a cost of $4.6-million.

"The budget pressure created by the need to hire additional teachers and create additional space would require Surrey to rethink any educational program or service it provides beyond the core mandate," school superintendent Jordan Tinney says in his affidavit.

"I believe our schools and communities need stability," he said.

I am concerned about the impact on parents, educators and students with such a monumental shift in service delivery if the shift proves temporary depending on the outcome of this appeal," he said.

"I am also concerned about the lasting harm of such disruption on the confidence in public education if we needed to make such a shift and then potentially undo the changes if the appeal is successful."

The rest of the affidavits vary by region, but lay out similarly chaotic scenarios.

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Kevin Godden, schools superintendent in Abbotsford School District 34, says his area would need to hire about 63 classroom teacher full-time-equivalents and 29 other teaching staff at a cost of $8.5-million.

To make space for additional classes in the district, which has 46 schools for 18,500 students, it would have to displace some programs, reclaim some spaces and buy 21 portable classrooms at a cost of $125,000 each.

The bill for an extra 61.5 full-time equivalent teachers in the Central Okanagan School District, covering Kelowna, West Kelowna Lake Country and Peachland, would be $5.6-million, according to an affidavit from school superintendent Hugh Gloster.

The district would also require at least eight portable classrooms at a cost of up to $130,000 each, depending on whether they have to be built on site or have to be relocated.

Pending the appeal, Education Minister Peter Fassbender has said educators should proceed with the same working conditions and funding scenarios now in place.

The minister has also urged the British Columbia Teachers' Federation to return to talks to negotiate a 10-year labour agreement that the government has set as a key priority.

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The BCTF has dismissed the government decision to appeal the court ruling as predictable and disappointing. Union president Jim Iker was not available for comment on Friday.

Premier Christy Clark has said she "fundamentally" disagrees with the judgment that concluded her government took measures to provoke a teachers strike rather than bargain in good faith. However, the opposition NDP has released court transcripts in which the former CEO of the government's bargaining agent talks about goading the teachers into a full strike.

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