Patti Bacchus: Teachers who won in court plead for help, say VSB playing “shell games”

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      A year after the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) landmark Supreme Court of Canada victory over the former B.C. government’s stripping of its contract, some teachers say classroom composition is worse than ever for Vancouver’s most vulnerable students.

      And BCTF president Glen Hansman is singling out the Vancouver school board (VSB) for “playing shell games” with the court-ordered contract restoration.

      Hansman had harsh words for VSB managers this week, saying other districts aren’t having the problems he’s seeing in Vancouver classrooms. Instead of doing everything possible to restore the contract provisions by adding teaching positions and classes, Hansman says the VSB is using a provision called a “best efforts test”—which is meant for rare situations where contract language can't be met despite best efforts to do so—to exempt itself from complying with the contract provisions around class composition in cases where it could comply if it tried.

      Under the best-efforts test, if a district truly can’t comply with the contract it has an option to provide teachers with a “remedy”, like more paid classroom preparation or additional resource support.

      “It was meant to be an exception to the rule, not the norm,” Hansman told me. “The VSB is bypassing that test and effectively ignoring class-composition language and, inexplicably, the VSB has also clawed back nonenrolling staffing at a time government says they’ll fund it.”

      No wonder some Vancouver teachers feel frustrated and abandoned

      Three teachers from Strathcona elementary wrote to B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming in late September expressing “their collective frustration” with the number of Strathcona classrooms that have more students with special needs than their restored collective agreements permit. Under the contract, classes should have no more than two students with special needs, although if a student receives a designation midyear, or a new student with special needs enrolls after the start of the year, there can be three.

      “Of the fifteen divisions in our school’s regular English Program, eleven contravene the class composition provisions of our restored contract,"
      the letter, signed by teachers Conor Murphy, Anna Chudnovsky and Sara Langlois, states.

      The examples they cite include two classes with six special-needs students and a grades six and seven split class with seven such students.

      As the teachers explain in their letter to Fleming, Strathcona is in one of the country’s poorest neighbourhoods and many of its students are impacted by the effects of poverty, including inadequate housing, food insecurity, and the intergenerational impact of residential-schools trauma.

      “We have students whose ability to learn has been severely compromised by prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol. We have extended-family members in our community lost to the ongoing fentanyl crisis. We have parents and grandparents who cannot cope with the overwhelming challenges of raising their kids and, in some cases, lose them to the care of the ministry,” the letter explains.

      The teachers are their school’s representatives to the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association (VESTA), and Chudnovsky says that although the BCTF court win was a "huge lift" with the promise that their old contract language would be fully restored, “in the late spring, things began to unravel”.

      “As we entered into discussions with our school administrator around organizing classes, it began to emerge that the VSB had no intention of implementing the terms of the restored contract.” At the time, the VSB was governed by a trustee appointed by the B.C. Liberal government after former education minister Mike Bernier fired the elected board in October 2016 for refusing to pass a budget with staffing and program cuts.

      A stinging betrayal of vulnerable kids

      Saying they feel abandoned, the Strathcona teachers’ letter goes on to say that “there is no indication that the VSB is making any attempt to abide by the memorandum of agreement entered into by the provincial parties. It seems the VSB management team has decided it will be far less costly and involve fewer logistical challenges to ignore the restored contract language and to instead opt for the ‘remedies for noncompliance.’ For our school, with a total of thirty special needs students over the class size limit, the remedy will generate about one teacher to be shared by eleven divisions.”

      They say that’s a “stinging betrayal” of kids and a gross violation of the landmark decision of the Supreme Court. “It will do little to alleviate the workload and daily demands on classroom teachers, but most heartbreaking of all, it will severely compromise the learning outcomes and future prospects for some of the most vulnerable children in our city,” they say in the letter.

      They conclude by saying other schools in Vancouver’s inner city have similar stories to tell, and they urge Vancouver’s NDP MLAs, whom they copied on the letter, to “intervene on our behalf and insist that the VSB make every effort to live up to the Memorandum of Agreement [between the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association and the BCTF].

      No answer from minister or NDP MLAs

      I saw the letter when it went out at the end of September, so I checked in with Chudnovsky this week to see what kind of response they got and if anything had improved.

      Nope. Not a thing. No response from Fleming or any of the seven Vancouver NDP MLAs and nothing from the VSB, although the letter was copied to the former appointed trustee, Dianne Turner, before the new board was elected in last month’s by-election.

      Chudnovsky said she cried tears of joy last year when the SCC ruled in favour of the BCTF, but she says she is still waiting for the decision to be made “real for the most desperately in-need kids in the city”.

      She says the VSB is taking the cheapest route possible by opting to use a “remedy” that’s allowable under the contract to give teachers 180 minutes a month of extra preparation time or resource support per each “violation” of the contract. Although that helps teachers manage their workloads, it doesn’t help teachers assess and address students’ learning needs the way more staffing would.

      Trustee response noncommittal

      After a year without an elected school board and no response from the former B.C. government’s appointed trustee or any MLAs, Chudnovsky is pleased that the school’s recently elected VSB liaison trustee, Carrie Bercic, has accepted an invitation to visit the school and hear from the teachers.

      Bercic told me she’s concerned about the situation and looking forward to hearing more from the teachers, but she declined to comment further regarding what she and/or the new board will do to address the situation.

      I also emailed VSB chair Janet Fraser to ask how many VSB classes aren’t in compliance. Fraser didn’t reply, but a VSB spokesperson responded on her behalf with this emailed statement: ““The district has fully utilized the funding provided by the ministry through the Classroom Enhancement Fund to maximize the number of enrolling classes. VSB continues to have regular discussions with the Vancouver Teachers Federation about the interpretation and implementation of the class size and composition language.”

      I checked in with VESTA president Chloe McKnight, who told me that two-thirds of Vancouver elementary schools are not following the restored contract language, primarily due to having more students with special needs in classes than the contract allows.

      She says the most extreme cases are in what the VSB refers to as “enhanced services” schools—schools that used to be referred to as inner-city schools—where there is a high concentration of students affected by poverty. She also says the VSB has chosen to go with the cheaper remedy option instead of making its best effort to comply by hiring more teachers.

      “We’d love to see more staffing going out to schools, and we want the government to make it clear to school boards that they’ll be given enough funding to fully comply with the contracts and hire enough staff to meet the needs of students—not just opt for the lowest amount they can get away with.”

      McKnight says her members need to see the province move on helping districts with recruitment and retention and that she hopes the newly elected board will continue what she calls the VSB’s “great historical record” of strong advocacy. “We want trustees who are open to hearing from stakeholders and willing to advocate for the needs of students,” McKnight told me by phone this week.

      Kids deserve better than more excuses

      The BCTF fought a 14-year battle after the B.C. Liberal government illegally stripped their contract in 2002. The biggest losers in that battle were the hundreds of thousands of kids—including mine—who spent years in overcrowded classrooms with inadequate supports. Every year meant more cuts as provincial funding for school districts failed to keep up with inflation and other rising costs.

      Teachers faced heavier and heavier workloads with less support. It ground down morale and wore people out. The court win last year was a massive victory not just for teachers but especially for students, present and future—although too late for those already out of the system.

      I served as a school trustee from 2008 until we were fired last year. We struggled with tens of millions of dollars in funding shortfalls and made painful decisions about budget cuts. It was brutal at times, and I spent many sleepless nights worrying about the impact of those cuts, especially on the district’s most vulnerable kids. We fought successfully to provide extra nonenrolling teaching positions to schools with a high number of vulnerable kids so they could have a chance at succeeding.

      We directed our management staff to protect as many teaching positions as possible and provide extra supports for inner-city schools. But there’s been no elected oversight for the past year, and classroom conditions for the most vulnerable are now feeling the effects of that.

      It’s heartbreaking to hear that with more funding going into the system, the kids who need it most are apparently getting less. The elected boards I served on and chaired would never have permitted that to happen.

      Now we have a government that’s promising to cover the costs of contract restoration and a school district that is, according to the BCTF president, “playing shell games” instead of putting back what the court told them to.

      Kids are the ones who are being hurt the most. After years of advocacy and walking picket lines, the Strathcona teachers are pleading for someone to do something to make sure kids in their school are getting the support they need.

      So far, they haven’t heard from anyone in the new B.C. government, despite letters to their local MLAs and to minister Fleming.

      Will anyone listen and respond to these teachers? I hope the B.C. NDP government and the VSB’s new trustees do. After all these years, Vancouver kids and their teachers deserve better then excuses and shell games.