VANCOUVER — School districts in British Columbia are scrambling to hire thousands of teachers ahead of the new school year to satisfy a court decision that reinstates standards on class size.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last November that legislation implemented by the province’s previous Liberal government in 2002 that prevented teachers from negotiating class size and composition related to special needs students was unconstitutional, resulting in a need for 3,000 to 3,500 more teachers.
“It’s a massive undertaking,” said Glen Hansman, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, adding the bulk of the positions are being filled in the final weeks before classes begin.
The hirings mean students can expect more support when they return to school, but Hansman said the rush to post and fill vacancies could have been avoided if more had been done before May’s provincial election.
“The previous government didn’t do enough before the election … to actually get a lot of this work done before the end of the last school year,” he said.
The Education Ministry said in a statement “there were no substantial delays in the hiring process as a result of the election.”
The Liberals earmarked $50 million in January to start hiring teachers while negotiations to reinstate class sizes were underway.
A deal was reached in March to restore language from previous contracts that called for smaller class sizes, ending the union’s 15-year battle over bargaining rights and resulting in a $330 million funding boost for public schools.
Premier John Horgan, whose New Democrats formed a government in July, included education in his list of priorities for the legislature in September.
Hansman said the new government has eased lingering funding concerns for school districts, but attracting enough recruits remains a challenge for some jurisdictions, partly because of the cost of living in B.C.
“Unfortunately, because of the affordability issues in this province and the fact that teachers in B.C. are paid significantly less than teachers in other parts of the country, it is really a difficult pitch to make to people who are graduating from teacher education programs to come out to B.C.,” Hansman said.
Northern and rural communities have long struggled to bring in teachers, particularly specialty and secondary school teachers, he added.
The Education Ministry said to help rural schools a $2 million fund was created to offer incentives, such as moving allowances or housing supports.
For districts unable to meet the new standards, the ministry said remedies were built into the agreement so existing teachers could receive “more prep time, additional teaching supports, or some other form of assistance” to make up for the shortfall.
Maintaining an adequate pool of on-call teachers has also been a challenge as they take full-time jobs and Hansman said the supply will need to be replenished.
Gordon Swan, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, said the coming school year is a transitional one and long-term planning involving the province, school boards, union and teachers education programs will be needed to meet the demands of growing communities.
In the province’s largest school district, there is also a demand for more physical space.
Doug Strachan of the Surrey School District said about 50 portables had to be purchased for new classroom space, adding to the existing 275 portables.
Portables were first installed at schools that have no alternative spaces, he said. There may be a shortfall of roughly a dozen portables, but those are expected to be in place by the second or third week of the school year.
The district has also worked aggressively to fill positions for 168 new classrooms this fall — representing five years of normal class growth, Strachan said.
“There may be some positions still being filled getting into the school year but we expected that they will be hired quickly and it won’t have impact on startup,” he said.
Swan said most districts have shared similar sentiments, and he’s confident everything will be in place by the end of September.
“My thought to parents is that they shouldn’t be worried about the situation this fall,” he said. “There will be additional teachers in the schools and their child will have a classroom to go to.”