Skip to content

Trouble ahead for B.C.'s schools

The school year is beginning with more uncertainty and tension than in recent years, and the teachers and the government are both to blame for that.

The school year is beginning with more uncertainty and tension than in recent years, and the teachers and the government are both to blame for that.

Now, there likely won't be much hard evidence for some weeks that this year is any different, but as time goes by, parents are undoubtedly going to become upset over what will likely be a deteriorating situation in various classrooms.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation and its employer, the B.C. Public Schools Employers Association, have so far showed absolutely zero ability to bargain a new collective agreement.

The BCTF has put on the table somewhat ludicrous demands that are so far out of touch with reality that it would be almost comical if they didn't pose a threat to the quality of education.

And the BCPSEA, at least according to the BCTF, wants concessions that are unreasonable.

Neither side seems to have an ability to change or soften its position, and so they remain stuck miles and miles apart.

The BCPSEA costs out the teachers' union demands for an improved benefits package at an eye-popping $2 billion.

Any wage increase - the BCTF wants parity with Alberta and Ontario, which translates to a hike of more than 20 per cent - is on top of that massive amount of money.

The BCTF points out the employer (i.e. the provincial government) is doing nothing to address problems associated with large class sizes and more particularly the composition of those classes.

The fact that a teachers' contract has been imposed by the legislature a number of times may help explain the lack of real bargaining that occurs in these contract talks.

Why bargain if the government simply imposes a new contract, the thinking may go on both sides.

However, another problem appears to be the BCTF's insistence that it consult its membership every time it makes a major change to its bargaining position. This doesn't happen in other unions, and it helps lock the bargaining process into a kind of paralysis.

In any event, the job action by teachers will be minor at first, with no impact on the classroom.

But by November, when the first report cards are to be sent home, things may get a little stickier. And if teachers eventually refuse to coach sports teams

or supervise school clubs, parental anxiety will begin to soar.

And this raises an interesting question.

Now that Premier Christy Clark has officially announced the legislature will resume sitting in October, will a legislated teachers' contract be imposed earlier than first thought?

Conventional thinking suggests the teachers will continue to ramp up their job action until the spring, when an all-out strike could occur.

A strike is unlikely to occur before school board elections this fall, lest negative public opinion to one costs B.C. Teachers' Federation-friendly trustees their jobs.

Winter follows soon after, and no one wants to walk a picket line in bad weather.

This takes us to the spring, probably April or May, for a walkout.

The legislature would be in session at the time, so a legislated contract could be imposed then.

However, it will be interesting to see if the Clark government launches a preemptive strike before things get really bad in the school system between November and the spring, and move to impose a contract in time for the first report cards to be distributed.

Meanwhile, the Clark government may also want to give the school system a break on another front: Ending the requirement of school districts to pay large sums of money to the Pacific Carbon Trust because schools emit greenhouse gases.

This involves millions of dollars being sapped from the public school system and then being given to private companies.

This scheme is a holdover from former Premier Gordon Campbell's determination for B.C. to lead the world in fighting climate change.

The new premier can scrap the requirement that schools (and hospitals) be part of this questionable program that obviously needs a rethink.

Such a move would be a positive step for the public school system, which is going to find itself mired in a sea of negativity for a long time as kids return to the classroom. Just how long remains to be seen.

Keith Baldrey is chief political correspondent for Global B.C.