BRITISH COLUMBIA

B.C. Teachers Ruling To Be Appealed

02/04/2014 12:46 EST | Updated 04/06/2014 05:59 EDT
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VICTORIA - British Columbia's Liberal government plans to appeal a court decision that concluded the province violated the bargaining rights of teachers and attempted to provoke a strike — a decision the teachers' union and the Opposition New Democrats warned would cast a cloud over contract negotiations.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender announced Tuesday that his government will appeal a court ruling from last week that awarded the BC Teachers' Federation $2 million and struck down a law related to their collective agreement.

Fassbender insisted the prolonged court battle won't impede contract negotiations with teachers.

But the president of the teachers' union, Jim Iker, was not so optimistic. Iker said the appeal signals that the Liberal government wants to continue fighting with teachers rather than negotiate.

"Today, with this appeal, Premier Christy Clark and Minister Fassbender have shown that we cannot trust them," said B.C. Teachers' Federation president Jim Iker.

"Christy Clark owes all of us — teachers, students and parents — an apology. By appealing Justice (Susan) Griffin's ruling, it's clear that they haven't changed."

Fassbender said allowing the ruling to stand would be unaffordable and would create disruptions in schools. He estimated the cost of the ruling would be "upwards of $1 billion."

The education minister said the government wants clarity and stability — for teachers, families, students and taxpayers and the government — when it comes to developing and maintaining B.C.'s education system.

He said he wants contract negotiations to continue toward a long-term deal, which the premier has previously said should be for 10 years.

"I'm not declaring war," said Fassbender. "The premier is clear: we want to work together. We want to find a solution."

Last week, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled legislation introduced in 2012 that removed class size and composition from contract negotiations was unconstitutional.

The law was introduced in the midst of heated negotiations with teachers. A similar law was struck down a year earlier, but the recent ruling says the government then introduced near-identical legislation and bargained in bad faith in an attempt to provoke a strike.

The judge came to that conclusion after examining cabinet documents, which have not been released publicly. Cabinet documents are confidential under the law, but the judge ordered the government to hand them over.

Fassbender said he would leave the detailed response to the lawyers, but he said he wanted to "correct" the perception that the province attempted to incite a walkout.

"This government's policy is not to provoke disruptions and disunity — it's about collaboration and co-operation," said Fassbender.

Meantime, the BC School Trustees Association said in a statement issued Tuesday evening it will consult independent legal counsel about the government's decision to appeal and share the results with boards of education around the province.

The association said boards of education need clarification about their obligations over local class size and composition, and it doesn't know if the judge's decision will be stayed.

The New Democrats have called on the government to release cabinet documents related to the negotiations.

Fassbender said the court ruling takes away the province's power to govern.

"The government acknowledges that all individuals in Canada have a freedom to associate, but we do not agree this gives the (union) the ability to override government's duty to make fiscal and policy decisions in the public interest," said Fassbender.

NDP education critic Rob Fleming said the government is going on the attack when it should instead have offered the teachers an olive branch.

"They have been found by the court to have essentially conspired against the union to provoke a strike," said Fleming.

"Those aren't the NDP's words, those are the judge's. And (the government was found) to have engaged in unconstitutional law making, abusing the legislative assembly essentially."

The union's president said the government's decision to appeal the court ruling was disappointing but predictable.

"I think it's about priorities," said Iker. "It's about determining what is important. Our students are important."

Iker said Statistics Canada data shows B.C. has the worst class-size averages in Canada and the lowest teacher-to-student ratio, and that the province would need 6,600 teachers to get B.C. to the Canadian average teacher-to-student ratio.

Iker said the government's appeal and past court losses will be difficult to set aside during contract talks.

"I want to believe that he wants to come to the table and negotiate in good faith but he's also part of a government that has broken the law twice," said Iker.

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