Educators unsure of class size ruling impacts

Local educators are examining the impact of the latest B.C. Court of Appeal ruling on the class-size dispute between the teachers’ union and the province.

School administrators will have to prove that classes with more than 30 students will not compromise the learning environment if challenged by teachers, B.C.’s highest court ruled Aug. 3.

In the latest conflict between teachers and the province over classroom organization, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation appealed an arbitrator’s decision that assigned to teachers the burden of proving that classes of between 31 and 33 students – slightly over the legislated limit of 30 – are not appropriate for student learning. The onus was on employers for classes of more than 33 students.

The appeal court overturned this decision, ruling that the burden of proof lies with the employer to demonstrate the decision to schedule any class over 30 was reasonable.

School officials have yet to determine how the court ruling will impact Nanaimo.

Donna Reimer, school district spokeswoman, said staff are still reviewing the district’s practices against the decision to determine the impact, if any.

Hugh Finlayson, CEO of the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association, said the decision means the employer will have to make its case first instead of the union if a complaint about a class is filed.

“I’m not sure it changes anything markedly on the ground,” he said.

Jamie Brennan, school board chairman, said trustees would like all classes to be under 30 students, but he’s not sure if this is possible to do within the district’s budget, given the layout of the district.

Last fall, nearly 100 classes were over the size limit.

“We still have some very small schools with low populations,” said Brennan, adding that sticking firmly to the limit may mean not being able to offer all programs that students want.

Susan Lambert, BCTF president, called the ruling a small victory for teachers because employers are going to have to demonstrate their decision to schedule an oversize classroom was a reasonable one if the union files a complaint about the class.

“It does at least establish some accountability for making the decision,” she said.

But insufficient funding causes districts to create the oversize classes in the first place, Lambert added, and this court ruling will not do anything to change that.

“What’s reasonable, what’s not reasonable when you don’t have the funding?” she said.

The ruling is only applicable to classes the union has filed complaints about from September 2010 and onward, due to the enormous volume and administrative burden associated with these complaints, as the union has filed thousands since provincial class-size legislation was first introduced in 2006.




Class size dispute history

The current class size dispute dates back to 2006 when the province introduced class size and composition legislation, which was modified in March with the passage of Bill 22.

The legislation required school principals to obtain the teacher's permission if a class exceeds 30 students for Grades 4-7 or a consultation with secondary school teachers. It also required a consultation with teachers if the class had more than three students with individual education plans.

Bill 22 removed the consent and consultation stipulations and allows for Grades 4-12 classes of more than 30 students if in the opinion of the principal and superintendent, the class is appropriate for student learning. Because it still requires the opinion of school administrators, it is believed the recent B.C. Court of Appeal decision still applies.

The BCTF has filed grievances against the employer for every class in the province that was over these limits since 2006.

Hugh Finlayson, CEO of the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, said the union filed about 11,000 grievances between 2006 and 2010.

To manage this volume, a sample process was adopted and in two arbitration proceedings, an arbitrator looked at a total of 125 classes, of which five were found inappropriate for student learning and consultations between administrators and teachers were inadequate in 19.

The remainder of the grievances were resolved informally and Finlayson estimates the total compensation paid out to teachers in the form of release time is between $50,000 and $100,000.

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