Provincial education minister Rob Fleming said his party “absolutely” remains a friend of teachers, but could not give a firm date when contract talks with teachers would lead to a settlement.
“As I have said previously, we will stay at it as long as it takes to get an agreement,” he said. “We have done that now with 225,000 other public servants, most recently with ambulance-paramedics. We continue to conclude agreements with bargaining units throughout the public service, many of them in tough, front-line positions. I know teaching is a very difficult position from [the perspective] of our government and we want to reach an agreement with them, just as we have nurses and other professions in B.C.”
Fleming made these comments after speaking to reporters in Sidney after officially opening a new playground at Sidney Elementary School.
The agreement between the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCFT) and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) expired on June 30. Teachers returned to classrooms without an agreement with a mediator trying to resolve the impasse.
“With respect to the mediator, there are few details that I wish to comment on, because they have called on both parties to adhere to a black out,” he said. “We are very hopeful that we continue to have productive conversations that will lead to a settlement.”
With the current labour situation, the New Democrats find themselves in a position of having to negotiate with a group — public education teachers — which it has historically courted.
“Absolutely,” said Fleming, when asked whether New Democrats still remain friends of teachers. “I think our funding record shows that — $1 billion of new resources in the school system. British Columbia hasn’t seen this in decades.”
British Columbia, he said, is making progress. “You can’t fix 16 years overnight, but we have turned the corner,” he said.
Fleming also commented on educational assistants (EAs) after two View Royal Elementary parents had expressed concerns about the level of care for their children, both on the autism spectrum. They’re well-behaved, aren’t boisterous in the classroom, but they require extra attention from educational assistants.
“Sometimes he gets shuffled between four to five EAs a day,” said Cristina Gage, one of the mothers.
Fleming said that it is a real concern for him, because the provincial education is inclusive.
“I can well understand that a parent may have if their child is not able to participate on a daily basis in the school,” he said. “It is not for a lack of resources. Our government has increased special education funding by 23 per cent since we formed government two years ago. That is a $106 million additional dollars to school districts to be able to hire educational assistants, to be able to provide special education teachers and other supports in the classroom.”
Fleming said it is his understanding that School District No. 61 has identified some additional staff to work with one of the students.
So if it is not about resources, why do these issues persist?
“It could be about staffing and having the right complement, the right learning team for children, who have individualized learning needs and education plans that are wrapped around that child. I don’t know the specifics, nor would I comment on a specific child for privacy reasons and other things,” he said. “But it is not for lack of resources.”
He added that the provincial government will continue to work with school districts, noting that the provincial government currently invests a total $22 million in School District No. 61 for special education funding, up more than $4 million.