British Columbia

B.C. offers $165 million for special needs students

B.C.'s education minister has come up with a $165 million plan intended to help special needs students, kick-start slow-moving contract talks with teachers and soften-up a pending legal challenge.

Education Minister George Abbott is putting $165 million on the table as part of a three-pronged attempt to help special needs students, kick-start slow-moving contract talks with teachers and soften-up a pending legal challenge.

Abbott acknowledged Tuesday there are several motives behind his plans to contribute extra dollars to improve funding for students with special needs — a major sticking point in the bogged down contract talks with B.C. teachers who have been in a legal strike position since last month.

"This is really us reaching out to the [B.C. Teachers' Federation] and saying, how can we work together to find a better way to deal with what's going to be close to a billion dollars for special needs three years from now," Abbot said.

'It's totally inadequate.'—Teachers' union president Susan Lambert

But union president Susan Lambert said the money isn't enough. She said it does nothing to persuade teachers from returning to court next week for another interpretation of last year's B.C. Supreme Court decision, which ruled teachers have the constitutional right to negotiate class sizes and class composition in their contracts.

Teachers have pursued such interests as part of their current contract negotiations.

The employer, the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, has said the teacher contract demands amount to $2.2 billion, and that doesn't include a wage increase.

Different view of ruling

"The [$165 million] fund itself is quite inadequate," said Lambert. "It's quite misleading to say it's $165 million over three years. In fact, it's nothing this year. There's $30 million the next year. It's totally inadequate."

She also said Abbott's special needs fund does not address the court issue.

Abbott said the government has a different view of the 2002 court ruling and believes it has until April 2012 to resolve the class size and class composition issues.

He said the government believes the $165 million increase over three years to the $850 million it currently spends annually on special needs students in the classroom actually starts a process to resolve the class composition issue.

"The court is not demanding we recreate the world as it existed in August of 2002," said Abbott. "The court has said that there were shortcomings in terms of the way in which we legislated Bills 27 and 28. I hope this will be something to help us build on."

NDP not impressed

Lambert said the teachers will look to the court for direction on the class composition issue.

She said the union has estimated the government removed the equivalent of $336 million annually from education funding with its decision to strip class size and class composition negotiating rights from teachers.

Opposition New Democrat Robin Austin, the education critic, said the government's new funding plan is a small step towards returning to earlier funding models.

But Austin said the plan to only add $30 million next year isn't enough, and could result in parents of special needs students and schools competing with each other for scarce government dollars.