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Classroom conditions deteriorating — BCTF president

Conditions in the public education system in this province are deteriorating and the outlook for students doesn't look good, according to the president of the BC Teachers' Federation, Jim Iker.

"As the conditions deteriorate and we get more students who need that extra support, and we see the decline of classroom teachers as well as specialist teachers, then at some point we're not going to be able to meet the needs of all our students," he said in an exclusive interview with The NEWS Tuesday.

Class compositions in this province are worse than ever before, Iker said. There are now over 16,000 classes in the province with four or more students with special needs and nearly 4,000 with seven or more special-needs students.

MLA Michelle Stilwell said in an e-mail the claims the BCTF are making come in the middle of a difficult round of bargaining with the union. She added that her government has increased funding for students with special needs by 60 per cent since 2000, to more than $870 million last year. There has also been an increase of special needs education assistant positions, she said, rising approximately 43 per cent over the past decade.

Iker said B.C. also has the worst class-size average in Canada and it would take the province hiring 6,600 teachers just to get to the Canadian average of teachers per students.

Classrooms are becoming more complex, he said, where there are all sorts students who need extra support and at the same time there is a decline in learning specialist teachers. Since 2002, B.C has lost around 700 special education teachers and more than 300 other teachers with specialized skills.

Local president of the Mount Arrowsmith Teachers Association, Debbie Morran, said she agreed more support is needed for students in this district.

"There are more needy students coming into our system than ever before," she said. "If you sat down with a classroom teacher and asked how the nature of teaching has changed in the last five years, they would tell you it is so much more difficult to try and meet the needs in the classroom when the needs have grown exponentially."

Stilwell said in just the last two years the government has invested $120 million into the Learning Improvement Fund to support special needs students in complex classrooms.

Iker said while the Learning Improvement Fund was created to provide additional support to students with special needs it didn’t work, as school districts had to use that money to buy back teachers that they had to cut due to lack of funding.

Morran said there are more kids in this district with behavioural issues than ever seen in the past and they are not getting the support they need. The fact that teachers in the province have gone 12 years without a collective agreement mandating class sizes has had a huge negative impact on this, she said. Adding to the problem is the fact that B.C. has the highest child poverty rate in Canada, she said.

“In this district we have young families who can’t afford to clothe their children and feed them regularly,” she said, adding that classroom teachers use money out of their own pockets to try and provide basic necessities for their students.

She said there needs to be a province-wide poverty reduction plan, as well as funding to provide food programs, B.C. needs more specialized teachers to deal with the emotional issues these kids are coming to school with, and more teacher counsellors, she said.

Iker agreed.

“There used to be a time when you could count on… you could say this child needs this support, and so arrange the time with the learning assistant or the special education resource {worker} or a teacher counsellor.”

Iker said the B.C. government needs to invest in education as the student-educator ratio in this province is the second worst, behind only Prince Edward Island, with about $1,000 less per student than the national average.

“One thousand less is just not acceptable in a province as rich as British Columbia,” he said.

The school district is facing a $3.4 million shortfall over the next five years, and 90 per cent of expenditures in the district go to salaries and benefits. When asked if local teachers would consider a temporary wage adjustment to help recoup some costs, Morran was cool to the idea.

“We are constantly expected to do more with less and we have been doing more for less for years,” she said. “And we are not going to negate and give away our salary in order to compensate for this government’s lack of priority in terms of  funding public education.”

She added that it’s a conversation that could happen but since the work has gotten harder, it would be a very hard pill for teachers to swallow, she said.

“And it doesn’t address the problem,” Iker said, adding that teachers in B.C. are also slipping behind in terms of salaries in the country.

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