Class composition crisis in northern B.C. school district

Sheer number of violations tally up to $550,000 in remedies

The holiday break may well be needed for teachers and administrators dealing with classroom-composition violations that riddle the Coast Mountains School District.

Since September, nearly 80 per cent of schools in this district are in violation of the composition limits.

Teachers are frustrated, says Mike Wen, president of the Terrace District Teachers’ Union, and while many have experienced improvements, some have as many as 10 identified students (special needs) in a class of 26.

“Most of them who have real problems are teachers who end up with nine, 10 or 11 identified kids in their class,” Wen said.

The problem stems back to the fact that composition was not given the same priority as class size after the Supreme Court ruling in 2016.

As teachers were being hired for the new school year this summer, the British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), and the Ministry of Education, directed school districts to fix class size, but only to remedy violations to composition by compensating teachers.

Mike Wen

“Those are two very different things,” said Wen. “You need to look at things through the lens of composition as well as class size… If you put the two together, [you’d] have a smaller class of 14 with three identified students, not a class of 28 with 6 identified students.

“There’s a big difference between the two,” said Wen.

Issues are particularly bad in Skeena Middle School, Caledonia Senior Secondary, Mount Elizabeth Secondary and Hazelton Secondary.

That’s because all the elementary schools converge into one secondary school, and the special needs students are all funneled through the same core courses along with the rest of students.

But nearly every school in the district has classes in violation, except for Bear Valley, Ecole Mountainview, Suwilaawks and Thornhill Primary.

Frustrations escalate because the remedy teachers are getting is minimal.

“The remedy isn’t hiring an extra teacher for the full year, it’s like, get someone to come — if you have enough time — once a week for the month, or one afternoon for a month,” explained Wen. “Or, you can get a TTOC (Teacher Teaching On Call, also known as substitute) to come in for the day, and you take extra prep time.”

The remedies come out of the Memorandum of Agreement March 3, 2017 between the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF), the Ministry and BCPSEA.

It gives four options for remedy if there are still violations after every effort has been made to meet class size and composition limits.

Teachers can either take extra prep time, hire an extra staff member to work in the class, hire a co-teacher to help, or another agreed-upon remedy.

The amount of compensation tallies to an estimated $337 per month, per violation, said school district secretary treasurer Alanna Cameron.

Alanna Cameron

She says it hasn’t just been teachers frustrated by the remedies.

The sheer number of violations in this district have tallied up to $550,000 in the district so far, a cost covered by the ministry within the $2.73 million this district got to fix class size and composition violations. But it still means a lot of paperwork.

“It’s a huge amount of work,” said Cameron.

“We have workbooks galore, endless workbooks of every single class…. and in the high school that’s one teacher with four blocks,” she said.

School administrators have to negotiate every month with teachers about how they want to use their $337-remedies, and report on everything separately.

“There’s only four schools in our district without any violations,” she said. “All of the other schools in our district have violations and require tracking… it’s a tremendous undertaking.”

Asked why there are so many violations, Cameron says it’s the 2002 language.

It’s “because our language was so stringent, back in 2002,” said Cameron. “We are obligated to accommodate it.”

The 2002 agreement states that two students with higher special needs or three with lower special needs, are allowed per class, similar to what was proposed by BCTF in a province-wide proposal tabled in 2011.

The school district hopes that BCTF and the Ministry can negotiate provincial composition regulations soon, but until then, school districts and teachers will have to manage this extra workload.

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