Everyone must be aware of the ongoing dispute between the BC Teachers Federation and the BC Government. Teachers have just held a three day strike starting March 5, and the government has tabled Bill 22, which it has named The Education Improvement Act. At first it appeared that the new legislation would be enacted very quickly, but now the provincial government seems in no hurry to pass it. As to the reason for this delay, your guess is as good as mine.
During this long dispute, as usual the meat in the sandwich is the BC Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA), the accredited bargaining agent for all boards of education in British Columbia.
Since the BCPSEA was formed in 1994, as part of the BC Public Sector Council, legislated by the government to oversee health, social services, and the other public sector groups, including the K-12 public education system, BCPSEA has been less than successful in its negotiations with the BCTF. Successive governments, both NDP and Liberal, have stepped in and imposed or negotiated teacher contracts.
BCPSEA always begins negotiations with an edict from government – in this round it included a ‘net zero’ mandate. Bargaining commenced in March 2011 and to this point BCTF and BCPSEA have met at least 78 times with nothing to show for it except agreement on nine non-monetary items.
During these negotiations, BCTF served strike notice on August 31, 2011, and on the first day of school in September teachers began limited job action.
A government fact-finder, appointed February 9, 2012, concluded that it was “very unlikely” the two sides would reach a voluntary settlement. This leads us to the current sorry state of affairs.
In my opinion, neither side is blameless in this dispute. In 2002 the Liberal government passed Bills 27 and 28, which stripped the teachers’ collective agreement and included removal of class size and class composition clauses. Bill 22 will return these clauses to the collective agreement in 2013 – too little, too late say the teachers.
The five-year agreement between the BCTF and the government, ratified September 2006, which included a 16 per cent salary increase over four years and a $4,000 signing bonus for each individual teacher, expired in June 2011. This agreement, along with those signed with the other public sector employees, were cynically seen as a way to ensure there would be no labour action during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
At the special Central Okanagan Board of Education Meeting held last week, about 60 teachers attended and vented their anger at the government, and chastised the board for doing nothing to support the teachers. They asked that trustees write letters supporting the teachers.
To be honest, considering the pressure being exerted, the easiest thing would have been to agree to do that, but I personally do not agree with everything the BCTF is demanding. I am frustrated by the amount of time, effort, and money that has gone into the 78 days of unproductive negotiations. I see the stress that the seven month job action has placed on our administrative staff who have been supervising at schools. I listen to the parents who want report cards, and sense the worry that our Grade 12 students feel as they plan for their futures.
I sympathize with the teachers over the shredding of their contract in 2002, and calling Bill 22, which I see as back to work legislation, the Education Improvement Act, is inflammatory. Yet, the BCTF negotiators need to temper their justified anger with perspective. I believe that when the government passes Bill 22, they must ensure that the mediator is independent and non-biased
I also acknowledge that we are extremely lucky in our school district, in that we have built a strong, respectful relationship with our teachers, and we know they have made themselves available to meet with parents and have assured us that the Grade 12 students will not be affected.
On February 23, I attended the evening session of the Early Learning for Families program at Peachland Elementary. Teachers and the principal welcomed families with preschoolers, so that connections could be made before the children start kindergarten. And nowhere was there any indication that we are in the middle of job action. This doesn’t seem to be the case in all school districts.
The board acknowledges that education funding has not kept up with increased costs. MSP payments have just increased, and we will have to find the extra dollars for that from somewhere. We all know that our own utility bills at home have increased – imagine what our increase in the school district will look like. It will cost much more to run our school buses if we believe the dire prediction that the cost at the pumps will jump drastically by the summer.
Over the past two years the Central Okanagan Board of Education has written more than 15 letters to the Ministry of Education regarding the underfunding of education programs in our school district. We know that when we have to budget for these extra costs it means that something has to be cut. We try our best to ensure that these cuts do not affect the classrooms, but we know that if we had the funds we could provide more for our students and teachers. We are proud of the programs we offer in the Central Okanagan School District, and we recognize the hard work of our employees as we strive to meet the needs of students entrusted to our care.
(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Central Okanagan Board of Education.)