Peter Cameron, BCPSEA’s Chief Negotiator, seemed to call for a cone of silence today for Trustees when it comes to bargaining issues in the public education sector.

While I can appreciate his frustration with diverging viewpoints (solidarity matters to both parties at the bargaining table), there are many issues not being discussed in a larger context which may, in part, explain why negotiations are so acrimonious.

Which brings me to the topics I’d like to explore here:  ratios for non-enrolling staff and specialist teachers, class size, and class composition.

Why?

Because if we talked about these issues in a meaningful way, apart from contract negotiations, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the same spin cycle of labour unrest every few years.

This is not an empirical study, nor an exhaustive analysis of the subject, nor does it represent the views of the West Vancouver Board of Education.  These are merely personal reflections intended to stimulate debate.

WVSS Band

Ratios for Non-Enrolling Staff and Specialists

To frame this discussion, I think we need to consider the minimally acceptable service levels for positions such as teacher-librarian, counsellor, special education teacher and so on.

Having said that, I realize that we must first agree on which of these roles is integral to providing a quality education for students. We can then determine the appropriate ratios.  However, these ratios would have to reflect the needs and the realities of each local community.  What may be needed in Vancouver, for example, may not work in Williams Lake, and what may be sufficient in Fort Nelson may not work on the Sunshine Coast.

Now that I think about it, perhaps this piece of the puzzle is not so easy after all!

Class Size

The key question here is can we find a balance between the needs of the employer, the working conditions for a teacher, and the students’ learning conditions?  For example, if a cap of 24 students is set for Grade 3 and a school has two fully subscribed classes of 24, what happens when someone moves into the neighbourhood and wants to place their child at the local school?   Does a class of 25 present a significant deterioration in the working and learning conditions of the teacher and the students?  Well, it may and it may not — it depends.  An even more basic question is how do we even determine the optimum number of students in a classroom?

Rather than a singular number, I wonder if a range could work within the context of a collective agreement.  For example, would it be possible to have a provision whereby a Grade 3 class can be anywhere from 15 to 28?  Or 18 to 26?  Whatever the range, provisions would also have to be considered regarding the process by which one were to go over or under – a process which balances the rights of the District with the working conditions of the teacher with the learning environment of the student.

There are also a myriad of exceptions to consider from classes that may have a defined capacity (such as foods and shop) to ones which may comfortably extend beyond a specified range (such as choir and band).

Given the many different factors to consider, you can see how difficult it becomes to distill class size down to a singular number which would apply in all situations in all regions of the province.

Class Composition

Of the three components I identified at the start, I find this one the most difficult to assess. The key question seems to be how do we set up a system which does not discriminate against our most vulnerable students and yet takes into account acceptable working conditions for a teacher?  But I do know that by not addressing class composition issues, we are potentially compromising the education of all the students in a particular classroom.

I believe the answer lies in ensuring adequate support services and resources in the classroom.  By that I mean if we are going to removing a limit on the number of special needs students in a classroom, we need to make sure the teacher in that classroom has additional help, whether in the form of special education assistants or education assistants (SEA or EA) or other specialist support, to meet the needs of all the students.

So, rather than saying there may only be three students with individual educations plans (IEPs) in one class, perhaps we have to say for every three IEPs in a classroom, there is one SEA or EA assigned to that classroom.  But then we face the challenge of determining the demand associated with any particular IEP because the nature of the adjustments or assistance required can vary substantively.  In addition, not every student who needs additional support has an IEP and it is often these students whose needs remain unmet not because of the teacher, but because of inadequate resourcing.

And yes, whichever remedies we put in place with regard to non-enrolling staff ratios, class size, and class composition will take money, a lot of money.  But we are talking about 558,985 children in BC and we are talking about the future of our democratic society and no I’m not exaggerating.

And as much as our provincial government may be focused on shrinking public education to help reduce the amount it spends, the price of not doing education well is too high to pay, for all of us.

As one school year draws to a close and another looms, I know many are trying to understand where we are when it comes to bargaining.

Why?

Because families plan ahead and they need to factor in those issues which may have an impact on their lives and the lives of their children.  One of those issues is the outcome of labour negotiations in the public education sector and the current status of job action.

I won’t attempt to explain the positions of the parties; I just want to provide some clarity around timing as I see it.

The government and Boards of Education, via the BC Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), are currently negotiating with the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) on a new contract.

Both sides have stated their interest in achieving a negotiated settlement by the end of June 2014.  It’s not known at this point how long the deal would be for although the last public position of the BCTF was for a four-year term while the government maintains that a 10-year term is its goal.

Photo by: Reema Faris - West Vancouver School Board Trustee

Earlier this spring, in response to what was seen as lack of movement at the bargaining table, the BCTF took a membership-wide vote which approved a three-phase plan for job action:

•Phase 1 – a province-wide disruption of communications with administration and the disruption of supervisory duties. The BCTF has activated Phase 1 which is currently in force.

•Phase 2 – This escalation, which is proposed but which has not been initiated, would involve rotating one-day strikes. If the BCTF invokes Phase 2, they will provide 48 hours notice to any District which will be subject to a one-day walkout.

•Phase 3 – full work stoppage.  If Phase 2 is invoked and if there is still no progress at the bargaining table, the BCTF will contemplate escalating the job action.  Prior to doing so, they have committed to holding another vote for their membership to approve the plan.  If at that point the union gets majority support from its members for a full work stoppage, it will be required to supply Districts — and consequently families, guardians, and caregivers — across the province with three business days’ notice.

That’s a summary of where we’re at today.

Between now and the end of this school year we may or may not see a settlement and we may or may not see an escalation of the job action.  Unfortunately, that’s the uncertainty with which we must all contend.

If a settlement is reached by June 30, then it will encompass a multi-year term and school will begin in September without any issue.

If a settlement is not reached by June 30, I think there are two scenarios we’ll face although there are probably others which are just as likely.  We’ll either have an escalation to Phase 2 of the job action before the end of this year or, depending on how things unfold and allowing for the summer break, we could have some disruption at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year.

Given the BCTF’s commitment to holding a full vote, I can’t imagine getting to Phase 3 of the job action prior to June 30 unless the BCTF were to leapfrog the idea of rotating strikes — and that would be publicly unpalatable — or the time lapse between the final two phases were significantly compressed.

In the event of a full work stoppage, I believe the government would act swiftly and that would likely mean the least promising outcome of this lingering dispute: a legislated settlement which sends teachers back to work while leaving much unresolved.

A shut down of the public education system would be disproportionately disruptive to students.  That is, there will be students — such as my child — whose time will be filled with alternative plans and activities. However, there will be many, many students and families who will be faced with significant consequences and to whom a strike will represent hardship.

And that’s why I strongly urge BCPSEA and the BCTF to tread carefully, yet with a sense of urgency, and to settle by June 30, 2014.

If you’re interested in more of the background to public education bargaining, here’s a very well-written recent article by Katie Hyslop in the Tyee.

Ratified.  That’s the word which characterizes this weekend for me.  It denotes success and a goal accomplished.  It indicates progress and sets a marker for the way forward.

The Agreement in Committee, a framework for bargaining which was fashioned in a collaborative effort between BCPSEA* and the BCTF**, was ratified this weekend at two separate meetings: the BCPSEA Annual General Meeting and the BCTF Representative Assembly.

This is a bold step for these two organizations. It sets the stage for positive dialogue before the start of labour negotiations.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the discussions will be easier or decisions arrived at without difficulty; it does mean that the parties have opened a door to a respectful process, respectful interaction, and — I hope — results.

Yet this step forward may have been jeopardized given the startling turn of events on Thursday, January 24, 2013.

Why?

IMG_8512 Frame

On Thursday, the provincial government released a document entitled “A Framework For Long Term Stability In Education” ) which came as a surprise to many of us who have a role to play in the public education system in British Columbia.

Although stakeholder submissions had been made by key partner groups on the issue of bargaining before the December holidays, this framework was much broader and incorporated many more issues than I believe were contemplated in those submissions.

While the goal of “stability” in education is admirable, and the narrative that has been designed to sell this new initiative may sound awfully good, scratch beneath the surface and many troubling issues emerge.

For example, why 10 years?  Where is the business case for introducing a level of inflexibility which may take away from the employers’ ability to respond to changing circumstances and uncertain economic conditions? Given rapid changes in technology and the reassessment of education, which seems to be in progress in many parts of the world, proposing such a lengthy time span seems like building your foundation on shifting sands.

Premier Clark and Don McRae, the Minister of Education, have both spoken about the plan and the media, including the full array of social media, have played and replayed, digested and parsed their comments.  

I also had the opportunity of hearing Minister McRae speak in-person at the BCPSEA AGM today.  

He said, again, that this framework was just the beginning, but I see it as stalling momentum rather than encouraging it.

Rather than asking what the best way to fund the public education system may be, we are now debating the merits of establishing yet another separate fund to deal with specific aspects of program delivery and service provision.

Rather than asking what the best way to set educational policy may be, we are now debating who should sit at the table of the proposed educational council.

Rather than asking how to ensure the best working relationship between the parties who negotiate, we are now trying to guess why the government seems intent on stripping BCPSEA of its core mandate which is to bargain on behalf of the 60 school boards in the province.

This government-proposed framework, says Minister McRae, is a conversation starter.  

I see it, unlike the now-ratified Agreement in Committee, as a conversation ender.

 

*British Columbia Public Schools Employers’ Association (http://www.bcpsea.bc.ca)

**British Columbia Teachers Federation (http://www.bctf.ca)