Looking for a light at the end of the tunnel is proving to be a challenge for those involved in collective bargaining between teachers and the province.
When reached on Monday, neither Becky Blair, president of the Creston Valley Teachers’ Association (CVTA) nor Mel Joy, School District No. 8 (Kootenay Lake) chair and head of the BC Public Schools Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), was optimistic that an agreement would be reached any time soon.
To make things worse, Joy said, she is being targeted by some local teachers, who are advocating her defeat at the polls on Nov. 19. Joy’s response echoed the sentiments she expressed on her Facebook re-election page on Saturday.
“I find this sad because over the years I have worked hard with teachers in our town to make our schools better places and integral parts in our community,” she said. “I have a deep respect for teachers and the profession that carries forward to our local board and to my provincial position. Taking me out as a trustee will not change things provincially. I am not the cause for government/BCTF strife nor the cause of the stale discussions at the bargaining table.”
BCPSEA is the bargaining arm of the B.C. government, but it has been told that no pay raises will be funded for teachers, so contract negotiations have been futile to this point. And a recent report by a mediator has left both sides claiming victory in the debate over what issues can be tackled at the school board level.
Blair said on Monday that BCPSEA stripped local boards of their ability to bargain last year.
“There is a real disconnect between what is happening locally and what is happening provincially,” she said. “All I know is that, locally, teachers are concerned about funding levels for special needs students, and local bargaining is the best way to solve local issues.”
Blair said she is unimpressed with the recent string of public announcements by the Ministry of Education and Premier Christy Clark, particularly one announced on Friday by Education Minister George Abbott
“BC’s Education Plan” promises to offer “personalized learning for every student, quality teaching and learning, flexibility of choice, high standards and learning empowered technology,” said Abbott. The plan was “developed in consultation with teachers, parents, students and education partner groups.”
“There has been no more money announced for education infrastructure to offer ‘flexibility of choice,’ ” Blair said. “And the lack of consultation will make it not work. The government said it consults, but I have no idea who they are consulting with — maybe they are looking in a mirror.”
While negotiations appear to be at a standstill, Blair said that among Creston Valley teachers, “Very few are saying that salaries are the key issue, although we are underpaid. Working conditions are the greatest concern. …
“Our Kootenay Lake school board always seems willing to listen. They seem willing to bargain and it might be helpful if they were allowed to do so.”
Joy said she supports the concept of local bargaining, but that it can’t really happen in any meaningful way because school districts have no taxing authority — they can only operate with funds provided by the provincial government.
“It would be a whole other discussion if boards had the ability to tax, but I don’t see that power coming back to the local level,” she said. “While the current system is not perfect, I believe we will eventually get to a place where we (the BCTF and BCPSEA) can work together.”
She admitted that the series of announcements on education might have a distracting influence on negotiations.
“They seem to have taken the focus from the bargaining table, whether that’s good or bad,” she said. “But bargaining has not been moving forward and there seems to be no incentive for teachers to negotiate.”
No matter what happens, Joy said, “The collective agreement will be a source of contention for a few years to come.”
She said she had elected to stay home this week instead of returning to her provincial duties. The 2011 election is the first one in which she has not been acclaimed to represent Creston on the school board and she is campaigning door to door in an effort to make a direct connection with her constituency.
And, while Blair said she was disappointed that a Creston trustee is at the head of a bargaining association that has made little or no progress at the negotiating table, the CVTA is not endorsing candidates.
“We are encouraging our members to attend forums and make their own decisions about who to support,” she said. “We want them to get out and vote, just like everyone else should be doing.”
“I guess what I am asking as people are working diligently to unseat me, is this for the best interest of Creston or are your actions just to upset the provincial body?” Joy said. “The impact on Creston and the local board is way more important to me.”