Teacher talks loom over legislative session

The B.C. government will provide more money for special-needs support in the province's public schools, and impose new training on teachers, according to Premier Christy Clark's first throne speech.

The B.C. legislature resumed sitting Monday with Premier Christy Clark's first speech from the throne.

VICTORIA – The B.C. government will provide more money for special-needs support in the province’s public schools, and provide new training for teachers, according to Premier Christy Clark’s first throne speech.

Lieutenant-Governor Steven Point delivered the speech Monday to open a new session of the B.C. legislature. It confirms that the province’s “net zero” negotiation mandate for public sector union contracts will be imposed for the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, whose contract expired last June.

The BCTF has been refusing non-essential duties since school started in September, and on Monday the B.C. Public School Employers Association met to consider reducing teacher pay or imposing a lockout in an effort to force a settlement.

The BCTF is demanding wage parity with other provinces and a range of benefit improvements, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce class sizes and increase special-needs support staff.

Education Minister George Abbott said the additional money for special needs support will be in the “tens of millions” over the next three years. Decreasing class sizes by one student across the province would cost $150 million, and research suggests that smaller classes are far down the list of things that improve education outcomes, he said.

The speech promises “additional flexibility and choice” in educating students, adding that “these changes will be bold and represent a significant improvement in how, when and where education takes place.”

NDP leader Adrian Dix said improvements to special needs support are only coming because of a B.C. Supreme Court decision earlier this year giving the government a year to consult on class size and composition limits taken out of teacher bargaining in 2002.

“The government that lost in court on its action on class size and composition is now saying they may make some changes,” Dix said. “But in the year that we’re in, 12,000 classrooms are outside the class size and composition limits, and they passed a law to establish those.”

The speech also commits the government to make sure teachers who “abuse their position of trust are removed and not permitted to return.”

Abbott said amendments are coming to legislation governing the B.C. College of Teachers. Victoria lawyer Don Avison reviewed the college last year and found that BCTF influence allowed teachers to return to classrooms after being convicted of serious crimes including cocaine trafficking and sexual assault of students.

Other highlights of Monday’s throne speech:

• B.C.’s first Family Day statutory holiday will be Feb. 18, 2013.

• To reduce the backlog in B.C. courts, legislation is coming to relax restrictions on part-time work performed by retired judges to provide “surge capacity.”

• Prosecutors in Stanley Cup riot cases will ask for TV and radio access to cases, which are expected to start this month.

• New legislation is promised to restrict scrap metal sales to deter metal theft.