Patti Bacchus: Why is the VSB falling behind on class-composition improvements?

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      The B.C. government had some good education news last week: class size and composition numbers are improving in B.C. public schools. That was to be expected after thousands of teachers were hired following the restoration of teachers’ contract language due to the B.C. Teachers’ Federation’s (BCTF) 2016 victory in the Supreme Court of Canada.

      Unfortunately, the news isn’t as good in Vancouver as it is in neighbouring school districts, with the Vancouver School Board (VSB) falling behind others when it comes to improving class composition.

      According to a BCTF district-by-district summary of the government’s recent data, the number of B.C. classrooms with seven or more students with special needs is down by 17 percent this year, which is positive news for all students. The not-so-good news for Vancouver is that although it has less than 10 percent of the province’s total enrollment, it has about 20 percent of B.C.’s classrooms with seven or more students with special needs.

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      For those who like numbers: Vancouver has 663 classrooms with seven or more special-needs students out of its total of 9,007 classrooms, which equals 7.4 percent of its classes. By comparison, Surrey, which has more total enrollment than Vancouver, has only 329 classes with seven or more students with special needs, which is half as many as Vancouver.

      The bottom line is that all the VSB’s neighbouring school districts—Richmond, Burnaby, West Vancouver, North Vancouver, New Westminster, Delta, Coquitlam, Langley, and Maple Ridge—have a lower percentage of classes with seven or more special-needs students than does Vancouver, despite the VSB having more surplus classrooms than other districts.

      “We simply shouldn’t be seeing numbers like this on the composition side”

      BCTF president Glen Hansman is asking why Vancouver is doing so poorly in improving class composition compared to Surrey when the VSB has lots of extra classrooms and Surrey has a severe space crunch. With the influx of provincial funding to pay for new teachers (needed to comply with the teachers’ contract language restored following the BCTF’s court win), one would expect the VSB to have little trouble improving its class-composition numbers.

      Hansman says the VSB’s lack of progress comes “despite what is required by court-restored language and despite available space in Vancouver schools to create additional classes”.

      It also appears, according to Hansman, that Vancouver is largely out of step with the approach taken by other school districts with similar class-composition language. “We simply shouldn’t be seeing numbers like this on the composition side,” he says, noting that with the shortage of substitute teachers, the VSB is now having challenges delivering on the remedy it has generated. 

      Is the VSB using the “remedy” option unnecessarily?

      The agreement that the B.C. Public School Employer’s Association (BCPSEA is the organization that represents government and school boards in bargaining with school-board employee groups) and the BCTF signed after the teachers’ court win includes provisions for situations where it is next to impossible for school districts to organize classes to be in compliance with the old contract language, primarily due to space restrictions.

      Those provisions are called “remedies”, and they compensate teachers with classes over contract limits in size or composition with extra preparation time (by bringing in a substitute teacher to cover their class for time determined by formulas in the BCPSEA-BCTF agreement). That’s supposed to be used as a last resort, but it appears the VSB has opted to “staff to remedy” in many cases instead of complying with the terms in the restored collective-agreement language as much as it possibly can.

      That’s a lousy deal for students who are still in classrooms where there are seven or more students with complex learning needs who need extra support. It isn’t fair to either the students with special needs or their classmates. From many accounts I’ve heard, it’s also causing a lot of stress and burnout for teachers as well, and “remedies” don’t improve the learning environment for the kids or the teachers, which is why they should only be used as a last resort.

      Katharine Shipley, the president of the Vancouver Secondary Teachers’ Association, says she is looking to VSB trustees and senior managers to advocate to the Education Ministry to fully fund the cost of implementing the restored contract and to ensure that the remedy option isn’t used so frequently. She says using that remedy in so many VSB classes not only isn’t good for students but it also creates a lot of unnecessary administrative work to calculate how much is owed and how teachers are compensated.

      This year's situation created by B.C. Liberals last year

      I emailed VSB chair Janet Fraser last Monday (April 30) to ask what the VSB is doing to address Vancouver’s lagging composition numbers and whether she was concerned that so many VSB students are still learning in classrooms with such complex composition. She still hadn’t replied to my questions by Thursday (May 3) morning and gave me no indication she planned to do so. When I chaired that board, class composition was a high priority and I welcomed any opportunity to comment on it. Perhaps Fraser and the current VSB have different priorities.

      Instead I got a confusing response from VSB communications staff saying comparing Vancouver to neighbouring districts is “not a one-to-one equation”. They claimed that is because 22 of the VSB’s 663 classes with seven or more individualized education programs (IEPs) are segregated special-education classes that are capped at 15 students. That still doesn’t explain why the VSB has twice as many classes with seven or more IEPs than Surrey does, given that Surrey has more students than Vancouver and a severe space crunch.

      It would have been better for everyone—especially students—if VSB classes had been organized from the start of this school year to comply with the restored language instead of creating the current situation by playing with the remedy option when they didn’t need to, in most cases. The current board wasn’t elected until last October, so I don’t blame them for this year’s numbers—that happened on the watch of the B.C. Liberal government’s appointed trustee, Dianne Turner. The new trustees can’t go back and fix what was done, but they can clearly do better in planning for next year’s classes, if they actually want to.

      That’s the big question: do the trustees want to improve the VSB’s lagging class-composition numbers and are they ready to direct their management team to do so? Let’s hope they do, for the sake of all VSB students.

      Expiring teachers' contract might complicate matters

      I’ve heard some speculation that with the teachers’ contract expiring next year, those on the BCPSEA side may be pushing for provincial contract language that is weaker on composition than what is in the restored Vancouver contracts, which tends to be stronger (or, depending on your point of view, “richer”) than what’s in most other school districts’ contracts. They may not want the VSB to staff up to be in full compliance because they may plan to claim it’s just not possible or practical or because of concerns that if weaker, common provincial language is agreed upon, the VSB would have more teachers than government considers necessary and is willing to fund.

      This is just speculation, of course, but in the absence of any explanation for why Vancouver can’t seem to do what other districts are managing to do fairly well, it seems like a plausible explanation.

      The chair of Vancouver’s district parent advisory council (DPAC), Rob Peregoodoff, says parents are also concerned about how class-size and composition provisions are being implemented and says he believes that various VSB “stakeholders” have different interpretations of the court ruling in the BCTF case. I understand that an arbitrator will be sorting some of that out, given the differing interpretations. Let’s hope it is worked out before the start of the next school year.

      Hansman told me he hopes the VSB will take a different approach now it has an elected board back in place and a new superintendent at the helm. I hope so too.

      We waited years for a positive court ruling and an injection of funding to restore class size and composition so we could improve learning conditions. Now that this has finally happened, it’s time for VSB trustees to ensure the restored contract language is being fully implemented and that classes are only allowed to be in violation when there is absolutely no reasonable alternative. That would go a long way to improving learning conditions and opportunities for all students, which should always be trustees’ top priority.

      I could—and maybe should—go on now about how using special-education designations as a measure to organize classes is using a blunt and crude instrument at best, but that’s a column for another day. Until we agree on a better way to ensure classrooms are balanced and supported to provide optimal learning conditions for all students, school trustees need to make the most of the tools they have.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.

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