The province is appealing a decision from the B.C. Supreme Court, which ruled last month that legislation retroactively removing issues such as class size and composition from teachers' collective agreement was unconstitutional. The court also concluded the province attempted to provoke a full-scale teachers' strike and awarded the union $2 million.
A government lawyer asked the B.C. Court of Appeal on Friday to put the ruling on hold until the appeal is heard.
If that doesn't happen, Karen Horsman told the court, school districts would be forced to find ways to implement numerous contract provisions that were last in place in 2002, such as class-size limits and restrictions on the number of special-needs students permitted in each class.
In some districts, that would mean tens of millions of dollars a year in new staffing costs, said Horsman. Non-teaching staff would need to be laid off to pay for those teachers, she said, and recently developed programs to help special-needs students and other vulnerable children would be scaled back.
If those sorts of changes are pushed through now there would be no way to reverse them if the government eventually wins its appeal, she warned.
"If not stayed pending appeal, (the original ruling) presents irreparable harm to public interest of an unprecedented magnitude," said Horsman.
"There is financial harm, and also 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."
Horsman said if the ruling isn't put on hold, school boards would need to immediately start overhauling plans for the 2014-15 school year, even though much of that planning and budgeting work is already well underway.
The court case dates back to 2002, when the provincial government used legislation to remove those contract provisions from the collective agreement and barred them from future negotiations.
A court ruled in 2011 that the law was unconstitutional but the government introduced similar legislation the following year. The second version of the legislation was struck down last month.
Horsman said a key difference between the original legislation and the revised law passed in 2012 was that the new version allowed class size and composition issues to be included in contract negotiations.
"There is no current prohibition on bargaining," she said.
"The (B.C. Teachers' Federation) is free to put any proposal it wishes to on the bargaining table pertaining to class size and composition. And I understand that is, in fact, what is happening in bargaining."
The government is also appealing a section of the ruling that allowed the union to release its written closing submissions, which contain references to sealed cabinet documents. Government lawyers asked the court to put that issue on hold until the appeal is finished.
John Rogers, a lawyer for the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said the union isn't asking for changes to be put in place until the beginning of the next school year in September.
Still, he said it's important the ruling take effect now because negotiations are underway for the next contract. Without the old agreement back in place, "teachers would have to start from scratch."
At least a partial decision is expected from the Appeal Court next week on the issue of the teachers' closing submissions and their reference to cabinet documents. It's unclear when the court will rule on the government's application to delay the ruling.
The actual appeal is expected to be heard later this year, possibly in May or June, the court heard.
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