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BC Teachers Federation v. Province of BC – Part 3: Where Are We Now?

  • Photo: “SA teachers to strike today” by publik16 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Some believe that class sizes in Okanagan schools are rigidly limited to a certain number of students: 20 in kindergarten, 22 in grades 1-3, 28 in intermediate split classes, 30 in certain other classes, and so on. This is not really correct. These are base class size guidelines. They can be exceeded in certain circumstances.

Some believe that the courts specifically endorsed these class sizes or certain collective agreement terms.  This is not correct either. 

Who was conspicuously absent from the various court proceedings? Parents. Students. At no level of court did any parent's or student's group participate. Unfortunately, their voices were not heard on how the positions taken by the parties may affect students. While the province and the teachers' union of course participated, their interests do not necessarily fully align with those of students.

As discussed last week, confusion ensued after the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2016 decision in the British Columbia teachers’ case.

To address the confusion and restore certain previous collective agreement terms, the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), the provincial Ministry of Education and the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) negotiated a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). It became effective on September 1, 2017. 

The MOA permits base class size guidelines in collective agreements to be exceeded in certain circumstances. For example, if a particular school district’s collective agreement has superior language, that language applies.

In School District 23 (Central Okanagan), base class size guidelines can be exceeded by 10% before any staffing assistance must be provided.

The MOA also states that the restored language “shall not result in a student being denied access to a school, educational program, course, or inclusive learning environment unless this decision is based on an assessment of the student’s individual needs and abilities.” So, class sizes can be exceeded to ensure such access.

Even in school districts without superior language, and in circumstances that do not involve otherwise denying access, the MOA allows base class sizes to be exceeded if the school district has made “best efforts” to “achieve full compliance with the collective agreement provisions on class size and composition.”

The obligation to make best efforts is squarely placed on school districts. Neither parents nor students bear the brunt of these obligations.

Examples of best efforts include-re-examining how space is used within a school and across schools, using temporary classrooms, examining school boundaries, filling vacant positions, and renegotiating the terms of existing rental contracts that restrict a school district’s ability to fully comply with the restored language regarding class size and composition. 

So, parents might soon be saying good bye to school-based after-school programs.  Strong Start programs have historically been a unique exception.

Best efforts also include reorganizing classes even if it results in smaller classes.  For example, rather than having 3 classes of 22 students and 14 children on a wait list, the school district may find itself adding a fourth class, resulting in 20 children per class.

There are exceptions to the best efforts requirement. These include compelling family issues, teacher recruitment challenges, and student safety.  Additional students are permitted in a class in these cases. 

A school district that fails or refuses to carefully structure its classes to meet the requirements of both the collective agreement and the MOA risks  complaints and possible litigation from parents displeased with their children being caught in the cross-fire.

While we all admire teachers and the important work that they do, their rights ought never to prevail over those of students.

The recent phenomenon of wait listing students, while also renting out school space for non-educational uses, and failing or refusing to accommodate student demand for educational programs as required by the MOA must be immediately reconsidered by any school district in which this occurs.

We can only hope that all involved remain mindful that the best interests of students ought never be compromised in this ongoing dispute.

This is a slightly modified version of an article that is appearing in the Kelowna Daily Courier, the Kelowna Capital News and other online publications on or about October 25, 2019. The content of this article is intended to provide very general thoughts and general information, not to provide legal advice. Advice from an experienced legal professional should be sought about your specific circumstances.  If you would like to reach us, we may be reached at 250-764-7710 or through our website at inspirelaw.ca