Students are set to go back to school on Tuesday, Sept. 3. (Black Press Media files)

Students are set to go back to school on Tuesday, Sept. 3. (Black Press Media files)

School returns in B.C. with uncertainty surrounding contract for teachers

Negotiations are scheduled to resume on Sept. 23

Teachers in British Columbia will be returning to the classroom without a contract despite the help of a mediator who spent 13 days this summer at the bargaining table with their union and the employer.

A six-year agreement expired in June, followed by five days of talks in July after the BC Public School Employers’ Association requested the Labour Relations Board appoint a mediator, who met with both sides for another eight days at the end of August.

Negotiations are scheduled to resume on Sept. 23.

Tess Riley, who will be starting her second year of teaching at the Cariboo Chilcotin School District, said she’s hoping for a smooth transition to a new contract under the NDP after the former Liberal government stripped contract provisions in 2002 for class size and composition of students, including those with learning challenges.

Years of labour strife followed, with a provincewide teachers’ strike that had students out of school for five weeks in 2014 when the employer imposed a partial lockout that lasted 25 days.

A landmark Supreme Court of Canada victory for the BC Teachers’ Federation in 2016 restored class-size and composition provisions, forcing the government to hire more teachers.

Riley said the uncertainty around the current negotiations is “scary” considering the toxic relationship forged between the union and the former Liberal government, which was defeated by the NDP in May 2017.

“I’m hoping that in the next few days they’re able to reach common ground so we can roll forward. I think the uncertainty is also really tough for families and people who have to think of contingency plans if something happens,” she said.

READ MORE: ‘Plenty of time for a deal’: Teachers’ union expects kids back in school on Sept. 3

Federation president Teri Mooring said the union representing 43,000 teachers is also aiming to wrap up contract talks without any issues reminiscent of past attempts to reach a contract.

“We had hoped, with a new government, that we wouldn’t be in the same position where we’re month-to-month at the table and then a mediator but that’s where we’re at,” Mooring said.

The union is demanding higher wages and class size and composition language in the contract for grades 4 to 12 in some districts around the province.

They include West Vancouver, where a cap of 20 students exists in kindergarten, with a maximum of 22 students in grades 1 to 3 but no provisions on class-size limits beyond that. Those gaps existed before the Supreme Court ruling and the union is now looking to fill them, Mooring said.

While the School Act limits 30 students per class for grades 4 to 12, she said, a school district superintendent and a principal can change that number so it’s not uncommon for high school physical education classes in some districts to have more students.

Data from the federation show its teachers are the second-lowest paid among their counterparts in other provinces, with Quebec at the bottom, Alberta at the top and Ontario in second place.

Sandra Johnston, lead bargainer of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said using the Calgary Board of Education’s wages as an average, teachers with five years of education and 10 years’ experience earn $97,372 annually in the province, which has no cap on class sizes.

READ MORE: B.C. education minister says focus is on new curriculum, filling on-call teacher ranks

Mooring said B.C. teachers with similar credentials are paid about $92,000, suggesting the higher salary in Alberta could lure them to the neighbouring province, though Johnston said there’s no indication that is happening.

She said Alberta teachers’ wages have been frozen for six of the last seven years and arbitration aimed at increasing them is set for mid-November, two months later than expected after the United Conservative Party introduced legislation that also delays talks for other public-sector unions.

“They’re expecting to table a budget in October, which has left a great deal of uncertainty for school boards here because they don’t know how much money they will be receiving from government,” Johnston said. ”If government reduces funding we might see teachers from Alberta looking at other places for work.”

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming said efforts to recruit more teachers are paying off, with 906 out-of-province teachers hired last year, mostly from Ontario, and funding for all 60 school districts was increased for the first time since 2006.

“We’re hiring at a time when we’re making significant adjustments to our school system and other provinces are not, and that may continue to be the case in Ontario, and I think there’s a high degree of uncertainty for teaching professionals in Alberta now,” he said.

As for B.C. teachers’ relatively low wages, Fleming said “that’s historic.”

“We want to work with teachers to get an agreement that’s good for the teaching profession, that’s good for parents and kids. The offer that’s on the table, which we’re going to negotiate, is significantly higher than what the previous government offered.”

ALSO READ: B.C. health officials to focus on unvaccinated kids heading back to school

James Ellis, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of education, said teachers in the province were the highest paid of all provinces in the 1950s but have slid further down the salary scale.

Ellis said one factor that may have worked against the B.C. Teachers’ Federation during successive rounds of contract talks since at least the early 2000s is its insistence on bargaining class size, adding that in Ontario, for example, it’s been capped by the government, which recently announced the size of high school classes would be increasing from an average of 22 to 28 students over four years.

“If they want to bargain class size that’s going to cost more than wages, probably, because it’ll mean (needing) more teachers and maybe that’s where they’ve come undone,” Ellis said.

“The honeymoon might be over, not on the wages, but on class size and composition.”

ALSO READ: Canadian kids eating healthier in school, B.C. study suggests

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press


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