Patti Bacchus: Students with special needs deserve “remedy” too

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      “Cash for kids” is a nifty slogan for charity fundraisers, but it’s an odious proposition when comes to our public-school system.

      In the B.C. public-school context, “cash for kids” refers to paying teachers extra for classes that are either too large or have too many kids with special needs, according to collective agreements between teachers and school boards. It’s odious because it does nothing to improve learning conditions for kids, and kids are the ones who end up losing out in overcrowded classrooms with insufficient support.

      Remedy rollover or cash for kids?

      In a recent letter to Vancouver school board (VSB) trustees, the presidents of the union locals representing VSB teachers, Chloe McKnight (elementary teachers) and Katharine Shipley (secondary teachers), say they’re “very concerned to hear that the ministry of education is directing school boards to pay teachers whose classes have attracted remedy, rather than roll over unused allocations into next year.”

      B.C. teachers’ representatives have long opposed cash for kids-style payouts, but it sounds like someone on the employer or government side is pushing them.

      “Remedy” is the word for the kind of compensation provided when school boards can’t, despite their best efforts, comply with class-size and composition limits in their collective agreements with teachers that were restored following the B.C Teachers’ Federation’s (BCTF) win at the Supreme Court of Canada.

      Patti Bacchus

      For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the VSB had a lot of classes that “attracted remedy” this year by having too many students in total or too many with special needs, at least according to the court-restored collective-agreement language.

      Remedy can come in several forms. The agreement signed by government, the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), and the BCTF following the court win lists several options, and none of them are cash payouts, although it does say there can be “other” remedies beyond the ones listed if all parties agree. The BCTF has been clear all along that cash-for-kids payouts are unacceptable. That should have been the end of that, but it wasn’t, according to the Vancouver teachers’ letter.

      In B.C., the BCPSEA represents school boards and government in negotiations with school-district employee groups, including teacher and support-staff unions. It also has a heavy hand in how school boards are implementing the restored collective-agreement language between school boards and teachers.

      Under the former B.C. Liberal provincial government, BCPSEA was led by a sole government-appointed administrator after former education minister Peter Fassbender dismissed BCPSEA’s board of elected school trustees and appointed government representatives in 2013.

      Education Minister Rob Fleming reversed that decision earlier this year, restoring BCPSEA’s former governance structure to a board comprising seven school trustees who are elected by B.C. school boards and four government-appointed representatives.

      It’s a complicated way to conduct complicated business and it doesn’t work well. I was the VSB's trustee representative to BCPSEA for several years. I never liked the adversarial culture of BCPSEA, even when most of its board members were elected trustees. Government wields a lot of control over its work, as it sets what’s referred to as the “bargaining mandate”, which pretty well dictates if there can be any raises and, if so, how much.

      Little changed from when the B.C. Liberals ran things?

      That leaves little room for BCPSEA to negotiate much of substance with school-board employee groups without further government intervention. I’ve always got the impression that BCPSEA managers take direction from government via the deputy minister of education, not school boards.

      I don’t think that’s changed much, despite the change in government. The key players who were there when the B.C. Liberal government had direct control over BCPSEA are still there, and we know what that government’s approach was to dealing with unions, especially the BCTF. That might explain why the old culture seems to persist.

      A Ministry of Education spokesperson told me this week that the ministry doesn’t direct the “amount or allocation of remedy”, as it is subject to the 2017 memorandum of agreement (MoA) between the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, BCPSEA. and the government. That makes for a bit of a mystery in terms of who, if anyone, is pushing for “cash for kids” payments to teachers who had oversized or overly complex classes this year and didn’t get “remedy” via extra preparation time or additional staff support during the school year. If it’s not coming from government, it could be coming from BCPSEA, but maybe not.

      I emailed the VSB trustees on Monday to ask it’s true that the Ministry of Education is directing them to pay out remedy to teachers rather than roll unused allocations over to next year. None would confirm or deny it, and the only one who responded to me at all was OneCity Vancouver trustee Carrie Bercic, who said she was concerned about the issue and that the VSB’s senior managers and teacher unions “are working diligently together to try to resolve this issue”.

      VSB chair Janet Fraser did not respond to my emails, despite being the board’s spokesperson. I asked the VSB’s communications staff and all they could tell me was that the matter is in arbitration and they couldn’t say anything more.

      Rolling remedy over to next year is better for students

      If outstanding remedy owing to teachers is rolled over to next year, it could be made up according to the provisions in the negotiated MoA, which lists options such as providing teachers with additional preparation time, adding additional teaching staff to support classes that are over contract limits, or other remedies agreed upon by school districts and their local teacher representatives.

      The issue in dispute this week was whether “outstanding remedy” districts owe teachers as the school year comes to a close can be carried over to the next school year, as many school board accounts and payments do. The MoA is silent on the issue of carrying over from year to year.

      It sounds like there’s a lot of remedy owing to VSB teachers due to the teacher shortage this year, and the teachers’ union representatives are asking for that to be carried over to next year. I can’t see why that should be a problem for school boards, who are able to roll over budget surpluses as well.

      Shipley says a cash payout option outlined in BCPSEA’s guide for school boards to implementing the Supreme Court decision is “a very disheartening and cynical approach” that clearly isn’t about what’s best for students. The BCTF and the locals have consistently rejected the idea of cash for kids. As they should. 

      The BCPSEA guide suggests: “If appropriate resources cannot be provided, the parties could agree to pay the teacher the cash equivalent of the calculated remedy.” If government—or the BCPSEA—is pressuring school boards to do the payouts instead of rolling outstanding remedy over to next year, well, shame on them.

      Given the BCTF has been consistent in its position that cash for kids is unacceptable and not in the interests of students, one wonders why BCPSEA included it in its guide in the first place. One might even wonder if it’s a provocative attempt at sowing internal dissent within the teachers’ union. I hope it isn’t, but my BCPSEA experiences suggest it’s a plausible explanation.

      Let’s hope this all gets resolved quickly so the remedy can carry over and the parties can focus on students. Remember them?

      A “remedy” for kids who lost out on support

      I have a remedy proposal of my own. Teachers with oversized or overly complex classes aren’t the only ones who deserve compensation of some sort. The mess the B.C. Liberal government left in education, including the scramble to find teachers to restore the many jobs that were cut during the Liberals’ regime, created yet another chaotic year for public schools. The people who lost out most are the system’s most vulnerable: students with special needs.

      In the Vancouver school district, the teacher shortage meant they were short dozens of substitute teachers on any given school day this year. Schools often filled in those absences by pulling special-education resource teachers to cover classes, meaning the students they normally work with one-on-one, or in small groups, didn’t get the support they needed.

      It’s hard for students to qualify for that support in the first place, and going without it means kids who already struggle will fall even further behind. It also means, according to anecdotal reports I’m hearing this year, that a lot of those kids got sent home instead of being at school. That’s not fair to them or their parents, who had to leave work or drop what they were doing to pick up their kids when the schools didn’t have staff to support them. How is that at all acceptable in a province where access to education is a right?

      Where’s the remedy for those kids?

      Spend the millions saved due to substitute shortage on students who lost out

      Here’s my proposal. School districts like Vancouver have saved millions of dollars due to the teacher shortage. When there’s no substitute to cover a class, there’s no substitute to pay. When they pull a resource teacher from the students they work with, that teacher is already being paid and won’t cost extra.

      I propose this year’s savings from the teacher shortage go to a fund to pay for “remedy” for those kids. Use the fund for summer programming for kids who didn’t get their resource time during the school year. Provide one-to-one support for those who need it, and small-group programs for others. Hire qualified VSB teachers to teach them, and make the programs available by referral by VSB school teams who identify which students went without support they needed and could benefit from additional summer programming. Make it optional for the kids and their families.

      It would give kids who were shortchanged this year a chance to catch up and build their confidence before heading into the next school year. It would give teachers who want to make some extra money and get some more experience over the summer a chance to do that. It would take some pressure off families who are struggling to find ways to support their kids who aren’t getting what they need at school.

      While I agree employees’ rights must be respected in the school system, I live for the day the students’ rights get the same level of attention and respect from school boards and government as the grownups’ rights do.