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Government negotiator releases teacher 'bargaining facts'

Yesterday while media, educators, and parents held their breath for the results of the teachers' job action vote, the BC Public School Employers Association, government's bargaining agent, released a set of "bargaining facts" to counter what the teachers' union has said about positions at the bargaining table.

"Two Proposals to Address Class Size and Teacher Workload: How Do They Differ?" offers a link to both sides' tabled proposals, and elaborates on government's views about the recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling in teachers' favour and on their class size and composition proposals.

On Jan. 27, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin ruled government's Education Improvement Act was unconstitutional. The Act introduced temporary class size limits that would expire June 30, 2013, and prevented teachers from bargaining class size and composition until that date.

The union maintains Griffin's ruling forces the government to go back to contract language from 2001, the last time teachers were allowed to bargain class size and composition. The government says that was never a requirement, citing this section of the ruling:

[679] The outcome of this case means that teachers have once again had their right to collectively bargain over their working conditions restored. They have had certain language returned to their collective agreement retroactively. This does not guarantee that the language is clad in stone, as it can and likely will need to be the subject of ongoing collective bargaining.

But the government's class size and composition proposals involve sticking with the class sizes outlined in the School Act -- carried over from the Education Improvement Act -- adding only if government should deviate from this rule, would teachers be able to address it in bargaining. Which seems to contradict Griffin's ruling, too:

[680] The government remains free to give guidance to the employer association in collective bargaining as to any fiscal and policy parameters of collective bargaining. However, there needs to be room for movement within those parameters to allow the workers to have meaningful influence over their employer.

At the bargaining table, teachers propose class sizes that decrease in 2014 and 2015, as well as capping the maximum number of special needs students per class at three, and the number of kids in shop or technology classes at 20.

The union allows for exceptions like late enrollment, agreement with the local union, or requests from band or choir teachers to increase the cap. There are also steps laid out for mediation or arbitration in situations where class sizes must exceed the cap.

Specialist staffing ratios also decrease in 2014 and 2015. The employer dismisses staffing ratios as an effort to force boards to hire more teachers and decrease elected officials' power:

"Fixed limits and defined staffing ratios take away from elected officials the ability to make significant decisions about how classes/schools should be organized and which teaching positions best meet the needs of students. Guidelines for such decisions are best defined in board or provincial policy, and final decisions as to appropriate allocations are best determined by elected officials and senior educators in districts."

Nor will the employer cap special needs student numbers in classrooms as it is "discriminatory and work against long-held efforts toward integration."

Finally government dismisses the teachers' class size and composition suggestions as being from the "1980s," adding "fixed class structures and teacher work assignments that were in place over 30 years ago are no longer appropriate." The union maintains Griffin ruled in favour of returning class size and composition levels to those from 2002 -- 12 years ago.

Government has also offered options to help with teacher workloads, including a workload fund taken from district operating funds. The Learning Improvement Fund would also continue next year, increasing to $75 million from $60 million.

The BC Teachers' Federation was unable to respond to an interview request due to today's teacher bargaining session. However, the union did highlight several sections of Griffin's ruling that seem to contradict the employers concerns that class size and composition negotiations would remove district flexibility:

[240] As mentioned, in the Bill 28 Decision this Court found that in fact the collective agreement terms on Working Conditions did provide significant flexibility. The government did not appeal these findings. In the Bill 28 Decision, this Court held at paras. 128-130: The individual local agreements that had been negotiated across the school districts in the province in the 1987-1993 timeframe showed a variety of terms and conditions regarding class size and composition. Of 75 school districts, some 58 negotiated provisions related to class size and composition. Sometimes the process of collective bargaining had involved job action. Many local teachers' associations agreed to class size and composition provisions which were not rigid but which allowed for exceptions or alterations, thereby providing flexibility to school boards with respect to class size and class composition. The following are some examples of the variety of provisions that existed in the local teachers' agreements, which permitted school districts to exceed class size limits or class composition restrictions: (a) if a student joined the school late in the year; (b) with the consent or request of a teacher; (c) with the consent of the teacher for educationally sound reasons; (d) if external financial constraints were imposed on the Board; (e) for band, choir, or physical education classes, at the request of the teacher; (f) where it was not "possible" to stay within limits; (g) if the student could not be reassigned to a different class at the same school with fewer students; (h) if the student could not be reassigned to an adjacent school; (i) by up to two students after September, providing that the teacher could request additional support; or (j) if the teacher was assigned less than the maximum in another class so that the teacher's total workload was not increased. Even where provisions in the local agreements or the later provincial collective agreements led to disagreements with respect to class size or class composition limits, local associations and the BCTF regularly settled grievances or requested remedies at arbitration that ensured that students were not moved from schools or out of classes during the school year. For example, if class size or composition limits were exceeded, the teacher might not request that students be removed from the class, but might seek extra support, or a day of paid leave to compensate for the increased workload. [241] The above reference was inclusive, not exclusive, and there were other terms in the collective agreement which provided flexibility in class size and composition.

[242] Mr. Drescher’s evidence revealed that the employer side of running schools would prefer to make decisions unencumbered by the employee’s union.

[243] Most employers would naturally find that they would have more flexibility and choice if they were not encumbered by a union. That as an end in and of itself does not justify legislative interference with freedom of association.

[244] The fallacy in the government position to the effect that collective agreements were not flexible is that the government legislation imposed class size limits that were absolutes and not open to negotiation, whereas the collective agreement terms were open to negotiation and to exceptions.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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