North Vancouver librarian done with keeping quiet

Educator plans 22 marathons in 22 days to protest Bill 22

STARTING Aug. 8, a Canyon Heights elementary librarian is planning to run roughly 22 marathons in 22 days to protest Bill 22 and challenge funding cuts to public education in British Columbia.

For the last four months, Ian Cunliffe has been shouldering an eight-kilogram backpack, ignoring the inflammation in his right knee, and racing up Cypress Mountain and through Seymour Park in preparation of what he calls "a war of attrition."

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If his body holds up, the former Sherwood Park elementary teacher and ultramarathoner will run from Sparwood, near the Alberta border, to Vancouver. Cunliffe said he's uncertain he'll be able to complete his route, which stretches more than 1,000 km, terminating at the SeaBus station down town.

Along the way, Cunliffe said he plans to speak with politicians, school board trustees, reporters, and the general public about Bill 22.

The bill, tabled in February, was passed to suspend the teacher's strike and impose a "cooling-off period" of six months. It also required that any negotiated settlement between the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the province involve no increase in spending.

"Traditionally, every four years, there's a kerfuffle with teachers and the government about wages . . . but this is fundamentally different," Cunliffe said.

The prospect of giving teachers a raise is understandably divisive, but Cunliffe said there are other things at issue that should unite the public behind educators.

"I think everyone can understand the importance of making sure that the class-size limits are still in place, and that special needs kids have a guaranteed minimum level of support," he said. "Once kids enter Grade 4, they can have a class of any size . . . in one room. There are no longer any limits."

The removal of class size limits - also a component of Bill 22 - makes it particularly difficult to find the time to work with special needs students, Cunliffe said. The problems are exacerbated by a lack of resources resulting from the bill's passage.

"There is now no longer any guaranteed minimum levels of funding for special needs kids," he said.

In 2005, 10,942 classrooms had four or more special needs students, according to the BCTF. That figure rose to 11,959 in 2010.

But the province has pointed out that the legislation

came with benefits to educators as well. Under the bill, teachers who oversee more than 30 students in their classroom will receive more money, more paid time to prepare for class, or more training.

"It's aimed at really allowing everybody to deal with the challenges in the classrooms," said Scott Sutherland, media liaison with the Ministry of Education.

"What has been lost in the mix sometimes is the new Learning Improvement Fund, which was part and parcel of Bill 22," said Sutherland.

School districts are set to receive $60 million this fall under the LIF.

"The Learning Improvement Fund is kind of tailored for special needs. It will allow districts to hire additional teachers and special education assistants," said Sutherland .

Inherent in the ministry's plan is the belief that districts are better suited than the province to judge where money should be spent, he said.

"You're on the ground; you are the ones that should be determining this making the decisions at your local district level," he said. "There's no edict from the province on teacher/ librarians. That is left up to the district to ascertain."

In the 2011/12 school year, there were 9,037 full-time-equivalent education assistants in B.C., according to Sutherland. That figure represents a bump of nearly 260 teaching assistants.

Cunliffe, however, had a markedly different take on staffing at public schools.

"Over the last few years we have laid off hundreds of learning assistance teachers, and I've got kids in my classroom who desperately need that service, and they're either not getting that service or they're getting an inadequate amount," he said.

Funding cuts have turned school libraries into an "endangered species," while reducing school counsellors to working in "triage mode," said Cunliffe.

The librarian is hoping his series of marathons will help put these issues back in front of the public. Speaking to the North Shore News with less than two weeks before heading to Sparwood, Cunliffe compared his marathon series to a purple cow, the sight of which causes people to slow down and take a long look.

"Often, the only way you can get people to pause in their daily routine is to do something that's a little bit outlandish or remarkable," he said.

The teacher once completed the Marathon des Sables, a footrace across the Sahara Desert.

"I actually did that 240-km being violently ill," he said, recalling eating dehydrated food and sleeping in a tent on the desert floor.

To complete this marathon, which is more than four times as long, he said he should have spent a year in training.

"I only had about four months preparation, which is really quite insufficient, so it's going to be an adventure," he said.

jshepherd@nsnews.com

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