Geoff Johnson: School planning becomes a nightmare

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‘Show me the money now” is the mantra some school-district administrators might well be muttering among themselves now that March is here, and planning for September is already in the initial stages.


That planning has to be done in the absence of some certainties critical to districts in their decision-making for next September.


It is not news that in 2002, the provincial government passed legislation removing many cost-related clauses, including class size and composition, from teacher contracts.


Subsequently, a November 2016 Supreme Court decision restored 2002 class-size and composition numbers and instructed the B.C. government to fund the additional staffing needed. That decision has huge implications for district administrators and principals trying to organize schools for next school year.


As things stand, the recently announced 2017 provincial budget allows for about half the cost of the eventual full implementation of the court decision, according to some experts in school-district finance.


While there will be no arguing with a Supreme Court decision, the provincial master teachers’ agreement, eventually reached in 2014 after a six-week strike, includes a clause that anticipated the outcome of the court battle. More importantly, it included a clause that essentially reopens some aspects of 59 separate local agreements not defined provincially.


Many of the details, that tricky place where the devil lives, have yet to be ironed out through a memorandum of understanding between school districts and the local branches of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation. Even so, that memo might not see the light of day until September.


It is these local agreements that could result in 1,400 clauses being reopened, with significant details yet to be reinterpreted and eventually reinstated.


Those details include recruiting and hiring new classroom teachers and restoring the ratios per student for teacher librarians, counsellors, learning-assistance teachers, special-education resource teachers, English-as-a-second-language teachers, school psychologists and speech/language pathologists.


Then there is the question of additional space, a consideration partly driven by school capacity. More classrooms will be needed as a result of smaller classes. Over the past 15 years, many buildings had to be decommissioned or even sold off, so there is a shortage of space.


Those inside the system, especially those responsible for organizing secondary schools of any size for next September, had hoped that all these details would be resolved before now.


As an example, secondary-school timetables, which take into account both teacher and student assignment to courses and classrooms, can’t be finalized overnight. Creating the timetable for even a medium-sized secondary school of 500 to 800 students, grades 8-12, is like an exercise in three-dimensional chess.


For larger schools, the problem becomes exponentially more complicated because of student course choices, class-time clashes, graduation requirements and teacher qualifications.


Much of this must be anticipated in the planning processes, which begin even now and sometimes are still being tweaked in late August once student numbers, teacher availability and classroom space are firmed up.


“Lab” courses such as industrial education, which in 2002 had a class limit of 24 students, in some cases have 30 kids who have their eyes on the prize of eventual access to an apprenticeship.


Then there is organization for elementary schools for the next school year, which is also plagued by a host of unresolved uncertainties.


Since 2002, there have been no limits on the numbers of students with special needs in each classroom nor any assurances about the allocation of specially trained teachers.


Depending on whose numbers you accept, there could be as many as 16,000 classes in B.C. with four or more children with ministry-defined special needs. Before 2002, a class with three children with special needs required the presence or availability of a second adult. The new contracts will require that be reinstated.


If the final rollout of the funding for additional teachers resulting from the Supreme Court decision and the final outcomes of local negotiations are not confirmed until September, that will be too late for the 2017-18 school year.


“Show me the money now” becomes a more urgent plea from school districts, anxious for a smooth startup in September. The uncertainty about the outcomes and consequences of a May provincial election only adds to the confusion.


 


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.


gfjohnson4@shaw.ca

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