BRITISH COLUMBIA
02/14/2014 01:38 EST | Updated 04/16/2014 05:59 EDT

B.C. Teachers' Contract Back In Court As Province Asks For Suspension

CP File
VANCOUVER - The British Columbia government is asking the province's highest court to temporarily suspend parts of a ruling that said the province violated teachers' bargaining rights when it axed certain provisions from teachers' contracts.

A B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled last month that legislation introduced in 2012 that removed class size and composition from contract negotiations was unconstitutional and awarded the teachers' union $2 million.

The ruling ordered that class size limits, maximums on the number of special needs students, and specialist teacher staffing levels be restored to what they were in 2002, when the teachers' union first launched a court challenge.

Judge Susan Griffin also concluded the provincial government intentionally attempted to provoke a full-scale teachers strike for political reasons.

The attorney general's office said Friday it has applied to stay Griffin's order dealing with class size and composition stayed until the appeal is heard. A document filed with the court said immediately restoring those 12-year-old provisions would present "irreparable harm to the public interest of an unprecedented magnitude."

"There is financial harm in the additional costs imposed on British Columbia's 60 school districts," the government wrote in a court document filed Friday.

"Of greater concern is the less quantifiable harm to students, families and educators in the disruption of school programs and classrooms in the restructuring of the K-12 system that would be required before the appeal is heard and resolved."

The document said complying with the court judgment would affect programs for special-needs students and vulnerable youth, as well as before-school and after-school care programs.

It would also force the government to lay off non-teaching staff and hire teachers who may not be fully qualified just to meet the numbers, the document said.

Hugh Gloster, superintendent of the Central Okanagan School District, was among several officials to file affidavits as part of the province's court application.

Gloster wrote in the document that his district would need to hire 61.5 full-time equivalent teachers — which would cost roughly $5.6 million — if it were to return to previous staffing levels.

Classes and time tables would also have to be reorganized to meet the requirements, Gloster's affidavit said.

"Re-organization at this point in the school year means separating some students and parents from the class and teacher they are familiar with and placing them in different or newly formed classes," he wrote. "It is a significant disruption to the school population."

The province's application also seeks to block the B.C. Teachers' Federation from distributing its closing arguments from the trial, which had been under a sealing order due to references to cabinet documents. The judge ordered the submissions released but delayed that part of her ruling by a month to allow a possible appeal.

"Our democratic tradition has long-affirmed the confidentiality of what is said in the cabinet room," the government argued.

"The process of democratic governance works best when cabinet members charged with government policy and decision-making are free to express themselves around the cabinet table unreservedly."

Earlier this week, the Opposition New Democrats released excerpts of court transcripts from the trial that the party argued confirmed there was a government policy to provoke a strike.

Premier Christy Clark has suggested the transcripts were taken out of context.

The judge's conclusion about the strike policy was based partly on cabinet documents, which were examined in court, but never released to the public. The NDP have called on Clark to release those documents, but Clark said that would violate her oath of confidentiality.

Both Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender have consistently denied there was a government strategy to trigger a teachers strike.

BC Teachers' Federation President Jim Iker was back at the bargaining table this week, but he said in a written statement Friday that restoring class size limits and staffing levels would benefit students, as they would get more one-on-one time with teachers.

He also argued that teachers should know the contents of the cabinet documents.

"Given the premier and minister of education's willingness to deny the facts as laid out in Justice Griffin's ruling, we believe releasing all of the information to our members is more important now than ever," the statement said.

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