Opinion

Editorial — Provincial government, BCTF need to focus on students

The figures compiled by Langley School District about the cost of implementing a court ruling by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin are staggering.

The district figures it would cost an additional $23 million to restore class size and composition to the 2002 level, as per a contract between the provincial government and B.C. Teachers Federation which was arbitrarily suspended by the province at that time. The contract had been imposed, against their will, on school districts in 1999 by the NDP government headed by Premier Glen Clark.

Since the 2002 decision to take the class size and composition limits out of the contract, the BCTF has fought vigorously to get them back. The union launched lawsuits, went on an illegal strike (and gained significant public support) and, thus far, has won two lawsuits in Justice Griffin’s courtroom.

In the first case, she ordered the BCTF and government to bargain and address the class size and composition issues. She gave the government a year to implement her ruling. Bargaining did take place, albeit at a glacial pace, and there was no resolution within the year. The union went back to the judge, and she ordered the former contract reinstated. The government says that would cost at least $500 million annually.

The province has now appealed that ruling to the B.C. Court of Appeal, which said last week that there is no immediate need to go back to the 2002 conditions, until the appeal is heard. While that gives school districts some breathing room, it is obvious this issue needs to be resolved once and for all.

Parents and students deserve some certainty. The BCTF is flexing its muscles, and is taking a strike vote this week — and it will be very surprising if there is not some job action, either at the end of this school year or at the beginning of the next one.

While the government has certainly provoked the union on a number of occasions, the union’s blithe ignorance of the province’s fiscal state is also grating. An additional $500 million per year comes from just one source — taxpayers. Teachers are already well-paid, and while their jobs certainly come with a great number of challenges, they aren’t the only ones.

The B.C. economy is far from robust, and many people are struggling to get by. High housing prices, rising user fees paid to agencies like the Medical Services Plan, TransLink, ICBC, TrEO and BC Hydro and the challenges of finding good-paying jobs all combine to make it tough for many.

Teachers deserve to be treated fairly and in a responsible way, and breaking contracts is no way to sort out disagreements. However, they also need to engage in meaningful bargaining with the provincial government, and not create even more uncertainty within the education system.

If B.C.’s economy is to return to its robust state, it requires a well-educated population. Teachers are a critical and essential part of that solution. They deserve a fair contract, and they also need to remember who is paying their wages and benefits — taxpayers.

More focus on students, by both the BCTF and the province, and less political rhetoric, is badly needed.

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