Cost of court ruling uncertain for Penticton-area schools

School district still analyzing judge's decision to reinstate teachers' right to bargain class size and composition

Okanagan Skaha School District

Okanagan Skaha School District

It’s unclear how a long-awaited court ruling issued Monday will affect B.C.’s education system, although the head of the local teachers’ union expects it to cost a lot of money.

“It’s in the billions of dollars,” said Okanagan Skaha Teachers’ Union president Leslea Woodward.

The B.C. Supreme Court ruling confirmed teachers’ assertion that in 2002 the provincial government illegally stripped their right to collectively bargain things like class size and composition.

In the 12 years since, said Woodward, hundreds of teachers lost their jobs and many students did without extra help they needed. How the government intends to make amends now is still up in the air.

“I’m not sure yet how it’s going to pan out,” said Woodward, but “it means that parents should be able to have their kids in smaller classes.”

Okanagan Skaha School District superintendent Wendy Hyer said she needs more information from government to determine how the ruling will affect her operations, but does expect additional costs.

“Likely yes, however we won’t know how much more and when those costs will be incurred until we receive further information,” she said via email.

Hyer is still unsure if the ruling, which is retroactive, will need to be applied to the balance of the 2013-14 school year.

Woodward said old contract language limited class sizes in high schools at 28 students, below the current cap of 30, while the number of students with behavioural designations allowed in each section was set at three, a ceiling that no longer exists.

“We’ve had some years where there’s been nine designated students in one classroom, and that doesn’t even include the grey-area kids,” Woodward said.

But the number of over-sized classes in the school district is down by two-thirds since 2007, according to a report prepared in November for the board of the Okanagan Skaha School District.

There were 14 over-sized classes of 31 or more students last fall, down from 49 just seven years ago.

Five of the big classes were French immersion sections, which triggered additional compensation for the teachers,  while the rest were non-academic courses like leadership, band and theatre classes.

B.C. teachers’ last contract expired in June 2013 and the government has expressed a desire to sign a 10-year deal with educators.

In her ruling, Justice Susan Griffin found the B.C. government did not negotiate in good faith with teachers during the last round of contract negotiations in 2011 and instead took a hard line to try to provoke a strike.

“The government thought that a teachers strike would give the government a political advantage in imposing legislation that the public might otherwise not support,” Griffin wrote.