COLUMN: School construction must be next step

After a 15-year battle between the province and teachers, the next step needs to be adding classroom space for students.

After a 15-year battle, the BC Liberal government and the B.C. Teachers Federation have made peace.

As is often the case when governments are involved, it is an enforced peace – enforced by an order of the Supreme Court of Canada, which in November said that the government had to renegotiate class-size limits and minimum staffing levels with the union.

This was the final ruling in a series of court cases initiated by the BCTF over provisions in the teachers’ contract which were stripped away in 2002 by the government, one year after it first took power and Christy Clark became education minister.

Rather than renegotiate the provisions in the contract, Education Minister Mike Bernier on behalf of the current BC Liberal government (now headed by Clark) agreed to restore the contract language. In recent months, the government and the BCTF have been negotiating how best to do that. An agreement was reached and ratified by BCTF members last week. It will cost taxpayers up to $300 million, as about 1,100 new teachers will be hired.

Of all the school districts in B.C., Surrey will be the most deeply affected by this agreement. It calls for strict limits on class sizes, limits on the composition of classes (the number of special needs students) and significantly more resources in schools, such as specialist teachers.

Because Surrey is adding about 1,000 students per year due to population growth, there will be a need for hundreds more teachers in Surrey to fulfil the terms of the agreement. At present, there are already hundreds of portable classrooms, because many Surrey schools do not have room for all their students. Where will these new, smaller classes be held?

Belatedly, the BC Liberal government has made significant funds available for new schools and classroom additions.

In January, the government announced capital funding of $217 million to add up to 5,200 new student spaces in Surrey. Because this was a “catch-up” announcement after several years of minimal capital funding for Surrey, these new classrooms will not provide enough extra space for the smaller classes, nor will there be anywhere near enough space for all the new students who will arrive at Surrey schools in the next few years.

Construction work is underway on several new schools, with Salish Secondary in Clayton the furthest advanced. It is slated to open in September, 2018.

The provincial government will have to make many millions more available for new classrooms in Surrey, to meet both the terms of the new agreement and have space for the new students who will come to Surrey schools. Bernier acknowledged that there will be “pressure points” in the implementation of the agreement. Surrey will feel much of that pressure.

The provincial government has done the right thing in complying with the order of the Supreme Court of Canada. It’s a shame that it took 15 years, many millions of dollars in legal fees, and much protracted political rhetoric to get to this point. And it is important to consider what BCTF president Glen Hansman has said – for 15 years B.C. students have not had full access to the resources that they should have had.

Surrey students deserve the full resources which will be made available under the terms of the new agreement. This means that there must be a commitment on the part of the province to build many more new classrooms in this school district.

As a provincial election is nearing, it is important for voters (and in particular, parents and teachers) get commitments from the two parties that have a chance to form the new government – the ruling BC Liberals and the opposition New Democrats – and find out where they stand on the issue of building more new schools in Surrey.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.