The B.C. government recently changed the way teachers bargain with the province by appointing a public administrator to replace school trustees at the negotiating table, just ahead of expected bargaining in September.

Bargaining between the teachers and the Province, as well as separate bargaining between school support staff (represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, CUPE) and the Province, is expected to start up again next month — when both teachers and support staff will be working under terms of an expired contract. When talks begin, Hospital Employers’ Association chief executive officer Michael Marchbank will assume all responsibilities previously held by the BC Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) board of directors.

According to a Ministry of Education press release, this is an interim measure and is meant to help the government secure a long-term deal with the BC Teachers’ Federation (better know as the BCTF, the teachers’ union).

Under the School Act, the provincial government and the 60 local boards of education across the province co-govern most aspects of education in B.C., including collective bargaining with teachers and school support staff. Local residents in each of the 60 school districts elect trustees to the local board of education. Trustee representatives from each district then elect nine trustees to the BCPSEA board of directors.

“My main concern is that the co-governance partnership between the provincial government and locally elected board of education will be further strained if new contracts with the BCTF and CUPE are imposed on school districts by the provincial government — particularly if any new contracts include additional, unfunded cost increases to existing operating budgets,” said local board of education chair Jim Jenkinson. “That is, our board of education could be compelled to ratify agreements that we did not negotiate with our employees, and we could be forced to accept increased cost pressures on already tight budgets.”

Mr. Jenkinson thinks the money for any wage increases or improvements in benefits in a new contract with teachers should come from the provincial government in the form of new funding, in addition to the current funding school districts already get.

“This is a huge concern for our school district because salaries, benefits and so on comprise 80 to 85 percent of our expenditures and we do not have the ability to raise funds or taxes to cover any associated increases to our operating budgets, and the budgets for the upcoming school year have already been established by the local board of education,” said Mr. Jenkinson.

The negotiating committee for Rocky Mountain School District 6, which includes the Upper Columbia Valley and Kimberley, has already concluded negotiations on local issues with the local Windermere Teachers Association (WTA) this past spring.

Mr. Marchbank’s appointment generated a less-than positive response from WTA president Doug Murray.

“Now that you don’t have the trustees there (in the bargaining process), well, isn’t that handy. It’s pretty typical for them (the B.C. government) to appoint somebody to make sure they get what they want,” said Mr. Murray. “They have offered us a ten-year contract. We (the teachers’ union) have said we’re not interested in that specific deal. But they keep trying to impose the thing. That’s not negotiating.”

Some kind of salary increase or other improvement in their employment packages is only reasonable, according to Mr. Murray.

“They’re leaving out inflation,” he said. “It’s like an automobile. If you want it to run good, that’s great, but you need gas money.”

According to provincial education minister Peter Fassbender, appointing Mr. Marchbank was also done, in part, to meet a BCTF demand to bargain directly with the B.C. government.

Mr. Marchbank, or another public administrator, will be filling the role until the necessary legislation is in place to restructure the bargaining process, according to the Ministry of Education press release. The provincial government intends to introduce amendments to legislation during the next legislative session to give the B.C. government a direct role in negotiating agreements with the BCTF.

Appointing a public administrator is the most transparent and effective means to implement BCPSEA’s new bargaining mandate, said the press release.

According to Mr. Fassbender, the BCPSEA will continue to play an advisory role to the provincial government and the BC School Trustees Association even though its legal role has ended, although he did not give specifics on what that advisory role would be or how it may function.

When bargaining between the teachers and Province does start this fall, the BCTF will likely try to restore bargaining for class size and special need support.

“In reality, teachers just want a normal classroom with an appropriate number of kids,” said Mr. Murray, adding he thinks cost-saving measures are fine, unless they compromise the quality of education kids receive.

“At the end of the day, if we can’t negotiate an agreement between teachers and the Province, we end up having to go to court. We did that already and we (the teachers’ union) won. So now it’s going to a higher court,” said Mr. Murray.

School support staff represented by CUPE were unable to reach an agreement during negotiations last spring and will be bargaining again this fall. A major point of those talks will be that school support staff have not had a raise for four years.

—With files from Tom Flecther, Black Press