Suzanne Hall is the head of the Maple Ridge Teachers’ Association. (THE NEWS files)

Still not enough teachers in Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows schools

Union wins in arbitration, calls for more hiring

School boards have not been hiring enough teachers, their union says, and an arbitrator has agreed with them.

The arbitrator has ruled with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation in a provincial grievance filed almost a year ago, saying school boards breached the collective agreement by failing to hire enough certified teachers to meet class-size and specialist ratios.

Class size language that was restored by the Supreme Court of Canada after a legal battle between the BCTF and the provincial government that lasted more than a decade.

The union argued school districts did not recruit enough teachers to meet the class-size limits, nor the guarantees of services from specialist teachers.

As a result, when classroom teachers are absent, teacher-librarians, counsellors, and other special education teachers are being pulled away from their specialist duties, in violation of the contract.

Maple Ridge Teachers Association president Suzanne Hall welcomed the arbitration outcome.

“We are waiting to hear in what ways this would specifically apply to our local situation here in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows,” she said. “Both SD42 and the MRTA have been tracking the times when a replacement teacher was not available to cover for ill or absent teachers; this has also been a consistent issue here …”

Hall said the local impacts have been taking support teachers and teacher librarians out of their regular work, to cover for classroom teachers who miss time. Support teachers work with special needs and vulnerable students.

She could not cite numbers, but said there were weekly instances at virtually every school, quite consistently between October and May.

“This was a frustration all last year, and indeed may well be again this year despite our joint efforts to mitigate the impact on students,” she said.

“While we do have some differing perspectives on how hiring should proceed, the MRTA recognizes that SD42 puts significant emphasis on recruiting teachers,” Hall added. “Finding enough teachers has been a challenge, however, especially in the specialist areas like support teacher, counsellor, or French Immersion teacher.”

Hall is hopeful that the arbitration win will make the provincial government “put some serious work into removing the systemic barriers,” including lower salaries, high relative housing costs, moving challenges, and the demand for more spaces for student teachers. These efforts could increase the number of teachers available and willing to work in B.C.

“For instance, I’d like to see the government make it easier to bring in qualified teachers from the United States; right now, the immigration rules are too onerous,” said Hall.

Irena Pochop, communications manager with School District No. 42, said the district is constantly engaged in the hiring process.

“We are always actively searching for and hiring new teachers-on-call. This was the case even before the Supreme Court reinstated the collective agreement language,” she added.

“Teacher shortages are impossible to predict, though, as they don’t occur during any specific time periods of the year. They can occur at any time for a variety of reasons, including an increase in illness-related absences, needed release time for teachers, meetings, etc.”

In her decision rendered Oct. 11, arbitrator Jennifer Glougie said “the restored language is of great importance to teachers and was won after a hard-fought, protracted legal battle. The fact remains that, for almost a decade and a half, teachers have been deprived of these important rights which the Supreme Court of Canada decision acknowledges were unconstitutionally removed from their collective agreement.”

The union said students are impacted.

“Because of the failure to fill classroom teaching positions, students with special needs have been losing out,” BCTF president Glen Hansman said. “Every time a specialist teacher is required to fill in for a classroom teacher, their special programs are set aside. Students with special needs should not be bearing the burden of school districts’ reluctance to recruit pro-actively.

The BCTF has urged government to act, said a press release. The previous Liberal government put $50 million toward teacher recruitment in January 2017, and a further $2 million for rural and remote districts later that spring. However, many districts did not take advantage of all the available funding to help jump-start hiring, and passed over certified teachers they could have hired, so the problem persisted into the 2017-18 school year.

“Hundreds more people applied for positions and some districts didn’t hire them, or even interview.”

The BCTF has repeatedly raised concerns with Education Minister Rob Fleming about the persistence of the failure-to-fill problem and the impact on students, especially those with special needs. Fleming appointed a ministerial task force on immediate recruitment and retention challenges, which reported back in December 2017, but only some of its recommendations have been implemented.

“It’s now the seventh week of the school year and there are almost 400 teaching jobs advertised,” Hansman said. “This shortage was predictable and avoidable. It must be addressed immediately.”

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