The cost of Vancouver teachers’ unlimited massage benefit soared to $1.62 million last year, contributing to the district's latest multimillion-dollar budget crisis.

The Vancouver School Board confirmed teachers’ 2012 claims represented a 50 per cent increase over 2008, when they filed for $1.08 million worth of massages.

Over the same period, the number of teachers actually decreased from 3,728 to 3,605.

Board spokesman Kurt Heinrich told CTV News that while the pricey job perk is paid for by the VSB, it was negotiated at the provincial level.

“Any changes to it would have to be bargained by the BC Public School Employers Association,” Heinrich said in an email. “Unfortunately, the VSB has no control over this.”

The board confirmed all claims are subject to the Pacific Blue Cross’ reasonable and customary limits, though the organization can only request a doctor’s note for massage claims after 24 visits in a calendar year.

The claims must also be for registered massage treatments.

Gerry Kent of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers Association defended the unlimited massage benefit, describing the work of an educator as “very stressful and challenging.”

“I’m not privy to why they’re taking the therapy but I believe teachers who are taking these therapies are doing it to maintain their ability to go to work,” Kent said.

Principals and administrators also have access to the benefit, though claim details were not available Wednesday.

The VSB, which grapples with regular deficits in the millions of dollars, is facing a $7.9 million budget shortfall this year, and has put eight teacher positions on the chopping block to help balance the books.

It’s also committed to better supervision and record-keeping in hopes of bringing down costs.

“We need to talk about what is going on, what is the reason behind it and make sure that appropriate oversight is in place,” trustee Mike Lombardi said.

Most B.C. teachers are covered by a standardized provincial health plan that has benefit caps, though Coquitlam teachers also have access to unlimited massages.

Benefit negotiations are currently underway, and the bargaining agent for the school boards said Vancouver and Coquitlam could save precious education dollars by joining the provincial plan.

With a report from CTV British Columbia’s Mi-Jung Lee