Trent Ernst, Editor
After the longest teacher’s strike ever, teachers and government finally negotiated a settlement after months of sometimes bitter conflict.
A tentative deal was reached last Tuesday, and teachers ratified the contract on Thursday with an 86 percent vote in favour, ending the strike that saw students miss just over five weeks of school total.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone in the South Peace for their patience and understanding while both sides worked through negotiations,” said MLA Mike Bernier. “As you know the government was looking to get a long term deal to help give certainty to our children in school and to avoid future disruptions. I can appreciate that this was a very emotional time for many families and I want to thank those who sent me heartfelt and respectful emails and for those who met with me to discuss your concerns. I shared all of those with the Minister of Education.
“This was a very educational experience on doing the best I could during a very sensitive and emotional time, to listen to concerns on all sides, and to try my best to represent the region, while balancing so many different opinions. This is a very small and close region, and I have many friends that are teachers and know firsthand their desire to teach so I am very happy to see them going back to work and doing what they not only enjoy, but have a passion for. As a father of five kids with some that went through Frank Ross, Central, and South Peace, I have a strong connection to some teachers and appreciate what they do.”
In the contract, teacher’s will receive 7.25 increase in wages over the six years of the deal, with a two percent raise this month, another 1.25 percent increase in January, then additional raises of 0.5 or 1 percent on average of about once a year until the contract expires in 2019.
In addition, extended health and dental benefits will get an $11.9-million boost, teacher on-call rates will be increased, and elementary school teachers will get a total of 100 minutes of prep time a week. In the last year of the contract, that will increase to 110 minutes.
A $105-million fund will be established to settle grievances from the ongoing court case. It is expected that money will be paid out by the union to teachers as a signing bonus.
One of the biggest points of discussion was class size and composition and lack of specialized teachers. A $400-million education fund will go toward improving classroom conditions, which will include hiring as many as 850 new teachers a year.
While that sounds like a lot, it works out to about one teacher for every two schools. Many teachers saw this is as the best of a bad deal and voted a reluctant yes. “It’s not a good deal,” said one local teacher. “But it’s a deal.”
Lorraine McKay agrees. She’s the president of the South Peace Teacher’s Association. “I’d say teachers here aren’t pleased with the contract,” she says. “They don’t think it will address all the needs of the children. And that’s the main reason we were out on strike.”
McKay says that the new education fund isn’t markedly different from the Learning Improvement Fund (LIF). “In the past we have not found the LIF very useful in addressing classroom issue. I don’t think the new grant will alleviate that.”
So, why did teachers vote yes? McKay says there’s a variety of reasons for the yes vote. “I think it reflects the fact that people have been without salaries for five weeks rather than their happiness with the contract. Teachers were struggling financially. But teachers do want to teach. That’s their passion. That’s their love. They realized the impact the job action had on kids.
Ultimately, she believes that most teacher’s figured this was the best it was going to get. “There wasn’t a sense that a longer job action would have a better resolution,” says McKay. “We wouldn’t gain anything by staying out longer.”
While the contract might not be the best, McKay says the strike helped raise awareness to the fact that BC students are not funded as well as students elsewhere in the country. “The important thing about the job action is that we helped the people of BC become aware of the fact that our education system is underfunded. That is something that will hopefully continue. “
With three weeks of school lost, the upcoming school year will be a little more intense than usual, as teachers are expected to make up for lost time without any changes to the current school year.
However, Education Minister Michael Fassbender says there is the possibility of changing this year’s exam schedule for grades 11 and 12 to make sure “there are no hiccups there for them in writing their exams.”
Next month, the province’s appeal in the earlier court case around class size and composition will be heard. A clause in the contract does allow either side to reopen the agreement after the case is settled.
“On behalf of government, I want to thank and congratulate B.C. teachers for voting in favour of the agreement reached earlier this week between the BCTF and BCPSEA bargaining teams,” Fassbender said.
“We have one of the best public education systems in the world, and that’s in large part because we have such great teachers. We can now focus on the path forward.”
“Negotiating is always better than Legislating or arbitrating,” says Bernier. “I am very happy we reached this position.”