Ridge teachers 'validated' in court

George Serra untangles hearts during a demonstration for support teachers  outside the school district office in 2012.   - THE NEWS/files
George Serra untangles hearts during a demonstration for support teachers outside the school district office in 2012.
— image credit: THE NEWS/files

The B.C. Supreme Court has ruled that the provincial government violated teachers’ rights in disregarding negotiated class size limits and that the former did not bargain in good faith.

It also ordered the province to pay the B.C. Teachers Federation $2 million.

The ruling comes after a 12-year court battle between teachers and Victoria.

“We’re ecstatic,” Maple Ridge Teachers Association president George Serra said after the ruling Monday. “You fight this hard to prove wrongdoing, and when you do it, it feels pretty good.”

He was pleased by how direct Justice Susan Griffin was about the Liberal government.

“The court concluded that the government did not negotiate in good faith with the union after the Bill 28 decision,” Griffin wrote in her reasons for judgement. “One of the problems was that the government representatives were preoccupied with another strategy. Their strategy was to put such pressure on the union that it would provoke a strike by the union. The government representatives thought this would give government the opportunity to gain political support for imposing legislation on the union.”

Griffin ruled the B.C. government’s replacement legislation, passed in 2011, is as unconstitutional as the 2002 law called Bill 28 that removed class size and special needs support from the BCTF contract.

BCTF president Jim Iker said the ruling returns contract language that was in place in 2002.

He expects that the province’s 60 school districts will have to rehire teachers and special need assistants to reduce class size. He said there were 1,200 education specialists affected by the 2002 legislation, including teacher-librarians and counsellors.

“It’s good for us, it’s good for public education, it’s good for British Columbia and for our students,” Iker said of Monday’s ruling.

Serra said the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district will be in better shape than many when it comes to re-hiring educators to address class sizes and special needs students.

“Laurie Meston [now acting superintendent] has always protected special education as much as she could,” said Serra. “It’s still too early to tell the local effects. Their hands are tied, because they have no money.”

The financial ramifications are still being tabulated.

“We didn’t discover a whole bunch of new money,” said Maple Ridge-Mission MLA Marc Dalton, who was a teacher before entering politics.

He noted the province is committed to balancing the provincial budget, and immediately hiring new teachers would obviously threaten that.

“We’re doing the best we can to be fiscally prudent,” Dalton said. “We’re not sure yet what will be, or could be, done.”

He has heard estimates that there has been a 300-per-cent increase in the number of students considered special needs over the past 12 years. Their presence in classrooms generally increases staffing requirements.

Dalton also believes the local school board has maintained staffing levels and supported special needs students.

“Our school district did a pretty good job of balancing needs,” he said.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender said he is disappointed by the ruling, and ministry staff will study the 150-page document before deciding on a possible appeal. He disagrees with the judge’s conclusion that the government tried to provoke a strike, and his focus is on reaching a new agreement.

“What we need to do is to review the judge’s ruling in detail to see what the implications are. But, clearly, my message to school districts, to parents, is it’s business as usual in our schools,” Fassbender said.

NDP education critic Rob Fleming called the ruling a “real blow to the B.C. Liberals’ credibility,” adding this issue traces back to Premier Christy Clark’s time as education minister in 2002.

– with files from Tom Fletcher

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