Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs is questioning why the Liberal government has agreed to a minimum number of teacher positions for the next five years even if enrolment continues to decline.
The new contract the province has signed with the New Brunswick Teachers' Federation says the number of positions that existed last September, 7,280, can't be reduced during the five-year life of the contract. That's despite a persistent trend of declining enrolment.
The provision is new and has not been part of previous contracts with the federation. Last week, union co-president Guy Arseneault called it "a major event and unique to our contract."
Higgs said Premier Brian Gallant probably agreed to the floor to avoid a labour dispute with teachers in the 18 months before the next provincial election.
"I'm sure the premier went out of his way to ensure there wouldn't be any issues around ... the teachers group," he said. "The discussions were probably one-sided, significantly.
"To me, it's 'How quickly can we sign this off, get it out, no fanfare, and be done with it?'"
Enrolment steadily dropping
Enrolment in New Brunswick schools has been steadily declining since 1991. Statistics released Wednesday show that 2016-17 was the first school year since then in which the numbers did not go down.
That's attributed to 650 students from newly arrived Syrian families, a spike that's unlikely to recur.
As finance minister in the PC government of David Alward, Higgs publicly questioned why the education budget continued to grow every year even though the number of students in the system was dropping.
Higgs didn't say Wednesday that he was against the floor on teacher numbers, but he questioned what the province will get out of it.
"For me, an investment has a return on investment, and that return should result in improved results," he said. "So I don't see any connection here."
Education Minister Brian Kenny told reporters that "there's lots of places where the teachers will be able to teach. — there's no doubt about that.
"These teachers will make a big, big difference in the education system."
Last week, Gallant told a news conference held to announce the ratification of the contract that the floor will "help ratios all over the place. The children are going to get more attention when they need it. They're going to get more support when they need it."
The contract also guarantees the hiring of 250 new teachers over the next five years, mainly to help in classrooms where there are students with learning and behaviour challenges.
Arseneault said at the news conference that establishing a floor of 7,280 positions means some of those teachers can be used "to supplement the 250 and to work with students directly to help with classroom composition."