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New policy bars group of pregnant Victoria teachers from continuing contracts

Pregnant teachers in the Greater Victoria area will no longer be considered for continuing contracts if their contractually-required pregnancy leave puts them off work for more than half the school year.

The Greater Victoria School District says the move supports the best interests of students by protecting continuity in the classroom, while a member of the school board calls the change "disgusting" and a University of Victoria law school professor says it may be unconstitutional.

The district notified the Greater Victoria Teachers' Association in June, indicating it had the right to make the policy change unilaterally, past president Tara Ehrcke said.

Ehrcke said that her union disagreed and saw the announced change in policy as "simply old-fashioned, no-nonsense sexism -- a woman's place is in the home."

Catherine Alpha, a Greater Victoria school trustee and teacher, recently told a district board meeting: "I'm going to continue to work in the public to make sure that everyone knows that this is a violation of human rights and a violation of equality for women."

Mark Walsh, the school board's manager of labour relations, explained the decision as "an availability issue."

He said the decision, which reverses past practice that saw teachers who became pregnant while on a temporary contract see their Employment Insurance pregnancy benefits topped up by the board and their pension and seniority entitlements undiminished, was motivated by concern about the impact of pregnancy leaves on students' quality of education.

Walsh cited one Victoria classroom that was led by six different teachers over one school year.

"The school board would never knowingly discriminate against women," he said.

University of Victoria law professor Gillian Calder said that in her view, the decision not to hire on the basis of pregnancy, in any shape or form, is discrimination.

"Here, the discrimination is explicit, on the face of the actions of the employer and the school board, not hidden behind some kind of hiring practice," she said.

Citing the costs involved in a Charter challenge or human rights complaint, which she predicted the union would win, Calder said she hoped the school board would "come to its senses" and reverse the new policy.

The union's Ehrcke disagrees with Walsh that the decision is simply about providing continuity in the classroom, suggesting that the school board, having lost a grievance arbitration in 2011 that struck down a board refusal to pay top up EI benefits for teachers off on pregnancy leave, decided to launch the current decision.

It can often take five to 10 years working on temporary contracts -- such as the ones that would be denied pregnant teachers under the new policy -- before younger teachers qualify for continuing contracts, Ehrcke said.

Because women teachers are most likely to be in their childbearing years during this "temporary contract" part of their careers, Ehrcke argued the new policy will impact unfairly on young mothers.

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for the Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at [email protected].

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