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July 7, 2012 / Carol Gibson

BC’s education system needs an attitude change

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Abbott: “puzzled and disappointed” by lack of progress in teacher talks (photo: Nick Procaylo, PNG)

 

Boards of Education, parents & the public want a resolution — the BCTF prefers an impasse

Thanks to Jon Ferry of the Vancouver Province for providing an opportunity to address the need for “attitude change” as a legitimate topic within the context of the BCTF labour action.

Ministers of Education from both sides of the political spectrum (Liberal and NDP) have attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate with the BCTF. George Abbott as the current Minister of Education came to the portfolio from Health Care with a relatively effective record of negotiation within that sector. Unfortunately, this experience in Health Care has zero relevance in the K -12 public education sector in which the BCTF refuses to participate in meaningful negotiation or to agree to recommendations that would permit meaningful bargaining.

Five years ago in February 2007 Vince Ready, the Industrial Inquiry Commissioner, presented his Final Report for Collective Bargaining Options to the then Minister of Labour. The report focused on bargaining in the K-12 public education sector.

The BCTF did not object to the selection of Vince Ready, nor did they challenge his credentials to undertake this task. They also did not try to prevent him from completing his task by initiating legal action to delay or to prevent preparation of a report. Vince Ready is and was a respected labour adviser whose expertise for the task was accepted by both BCTF and BCPSEA.

In such circumstances, the public legitimately could expect that recommendations arising in the Ready Report would be focused, positive, and provide a way out of the interminable politically motivated impasse that the public must endure whenever the BCTF is at the bargaining table.

The Ready recommendations were focused, were positive and were not unique. To a degree, they provided a statement of necessary pre-conditions for meaningful bargaining in any sector. Briefly summarized the Ready Recommendations were:

  1. No later than 8 months prior to bargaining both parties (BCTF and BCPSEA) establish their bargaining objectives through mechanisms that exist in their respective organizations
  2. 8 months prior to the expiry of the Collective Agreement, a Facilitator/Mediator is to be appointed by agreement of the parties and failing agreement, the Minister of Labour shall appoint a Facilitator/Mediator
  3. A Government official is appointed to serve directly on the Bargaining committee of BCPSEA and to participate in all activities. The Official should be senior enough to effectively represent the public policy interests of government
  4. The parties develop a common understanding of the data related to ALL collective bargaining matters such as:
    1. total cost of compensation;
    2. benefit costs;
    3. teacher demographics;
    4. teachers on-call;
    5. labour market issues (including but not limited to teacher supply, demand, as well as recruitment and retention matters)

The BCTF response to these recommendations is an indication of why there is an interminable and recurring impasse each time the BCTF is at the bargaining table.

BCPSEA, on behalf of the 60 Boards of Education in BC, agreed to be bound by all 4 recommendations. The BCTF outright rejected recommendations 2 and 4 and further refused to be bound by them.

Recommendations 2 and 4 are not interferences to bargaining that unduly favour one party over another. Recommendation 2 ensures that a Facilitator/Mediator appointed is acceptable to both parties and, if agreement cannot be reached, ensures that an appointment is made, not by the Minister of Education, but by the Minister of Labour. It also ensures an objective third party at the table whose designated role throughout the bargaining process is to facilitate and to mediate.

With such a person is at the table, it is possible, at least in bargaining, to challenge the political polarization on which the BCTF relies. This polarization is a critical part of BCTF media campaigns replete with rhetoric and sound bites which ensure that both their members and the public remain poorly informed.

Recommendation 4 is the most critical recommendation. It sets necessary preconditions for any bargaining – agreement about which data and method of calculation are valid, reliable and required by both parties in order to bargain effectively. One only needs to review the differences in the cost estimates within the current round of bargaining to understand how critical agreement about data and methods of calculation are to reaching any agreement.

As of January 2012, the BCTF estimated the Year 1 cost of their proposals to be $306M, BCPSEA estimated the cost to $498M – a $192M difference. Looking at the cumulative cost estimates through the life of the contract, the BCTF using their data sources and methods of calculation estimate the cumulative cost at $1.3B; BCPSEA data and method of calculation estimates cumulative cost at $2.1B – an $800M difference.

For taxpayers and the public education system, these differences are significant and must be resolved. However, the BCTF would seem to prefer a situation that ensures an impasse. In the absence of agreement about what are reliable and valid data as well as common methods for calculation, the BCTF can continue to point fingers at BCPSEA “because their data do not agree with BCTF data”. An impasse is ensured, politicization increases and no resolution can occur. Vince Ready recommended a way through the impasse, but the BCTF appears to prefer the political advantage that an impasse provides. One might ask, why?

Continued political polarization permits the BCTF through its rhetoric to convince its members that if government does not meet BCTF demands:

  1. teachers are being “victimized”;
  2. teachers are “not respected”; and
  3. the union of teachers represents the ”public interest” and therefore the union leadership must take firm positions that “protect public education”.

In the past such rhetoric was effective and rarely challenged. Superintendents who serve at the pleasure of their School Boards prudently remain silent. Some School Boards are as politicized as the BCTF. Many Board trustees are members of the BCTF or, in some cases, a majority of Board trustees serve with BCTF endorsement and political support. These Boards are also silent. However, despite this relative silence from other key partners in the public education sector, the BCTF rhetoric is wearing thin.

Boards of Education, parents and the public want to be able to evaluate and to account for how public dollars allocated to education are being spent. Ensuring that teachers are fairly compensated related to other comparable sectors or professions is important. However, this cannot be accomplished by continuing to increase the proportion of School Board budgets allocated to staff salary and benefits particularly when enrollments are declining.

The Ministry and the Boards must also ensure that a public education system has sufficient resources to provide every child in public education with safe, seismically upgraded facilities appropriate for learning, necessary and appropriate learning materials, access to learning technologies and learning environments that will prepare them to succeed as lifelong learners capable of adapting to rapid change.

This cannot be accomplished in the currently “hyper-politicized” bargaining environment in which the BCTF prefers to sustain the impasse and refuses to accept or be bound by recommendations that would provide a means to reach agreement.

– post by Carol Gibson, originally published by City Caucus on June 24, 2012.

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