The B.C. teachers’ union and the province are locked in mediated negotiations for a new collective agreement. (Black Press Media files)

‘Plenty of time for a deal’: Teachers’ union expects kids back in school on Sept. 3

BCTF says class size, composition at the heart of the issue

The president of the B.C. teachers’ union says there’s no reason why students won’t go back to school on Sept. 3.

Teri Mooring’s words came as eight days of mediated negotiations started Thursday after the BCTF’s contract with the province expired on June 30.

Mooring said eight days of mediation was “quite a long time… we’re certainly focused on getting a deal in August.”

The parties have been bargaining since January and eight days of mediated negotiations will wrap up Aug. 30.

“We haven’t had a strike vote,” Mooring said.

“We don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be able to get a deal in August.”

At the heart of the issue, Mooring said, is the language about class sizes and composition that was restored in a 2016 court win.

READ MORE: B.C. teachers celebrate top court ruling on class size

The win came after a 15 year battle between the province and the teachers’ union. The battle started in 2002 when the then-Liberal government stripped class size and composition language from collective agreements.

“We know that the language is not set in stone. We know it’s subject to negotiation,” Mooring said.

“But what we are not interested in doing is rolling back student learning conditions.”

Mooring said class size and composition language was negotiated by each local union and so there are some who don’t have it in their agreements.

What the union wants to do during this round is “fill in some of those gaps.”

Mooring said the union never expected to fight about class size and composition with the NDP government, who were critical of how the then-Liberal government handled the dispute during its 16 years in office.

“We didn’t expect that we would be late August without a deal,” she said.

“Education in B.C. is still really underfunded.”

In a statement, the education ministry said it was “encouraging” that the union had agreed to mediation.

“We’re optimistic that the parties will find solutions and reach a deal that works for students, teachers, and everyone in the school system,” the ministry said, noting a $1 billion investment in education, which included 4,000 teachers and 1,000 education assistants.

Mooring lauded the province’s recent capital spending on new schools and seismic upgrades.

What she said they fall short on is operation funding that would help hire enough teachers and make sure they weren’t lured away by higher salaries in other provinces.

“We have a critical teacher shortage in B.C. and the fact that our salary is so low and our cost of living is so high means that we’re not attracting the teachers we need to B.C.,” Mooring said.

She said north central and north coast schools are facing a particularly acute shortage.

“Not all classrooms have certified teachers,” Mooring said.

In urban areas, teacher-on-call lists have been decimated as teachers were hired full-time after the court win.

“Last [school] year, there were hundreds of ‘failures to fill’ every single day in Surrey alone,” Mooring said. That means there were no teachers-on-call to replace absent teachers.

Instead, counsellors, learning support teachers and librarians were pulled in to teach, which means that even if language about class size and composition stays, learning support teachers won’t be in the classroom with their own students.

“Students with special needs get their services denied, they didn’t get the programs they would normally get because their support teacher wasn’t available,” Mooring said, noting a lack of support staff can mean schools ask parents to keep their children home.

READ MORE: BCTF wins grievance over teacher shortage in public schools

Mooring said the fact that B.C. teachers get paid less than their neighbours in Alberta, or other provinces like Ontario, is central to the issue.

While teacher shortages are worst in rural areas, Mooring said, districts like Vancouver are also having trouble filling jobs.

“Very few teachers can afford to live in Vancouver,” Mooring said

“When our [class size and composition] language came back and there were so many opportunities around the entire province, we saw a large amount of teachers leaving the more expensive metro areas for either Vancouver Island or some places in the Okanagan, or the [Fraser] Valley.”

ASLO READ: Pregnant teachers fight to change WorkSafeBC compensation rules


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