Teachers bristle at contract legislation

Bill 22 will impose a cooling off period and extend teachers' previous contract to June 2012

KVR Middle School teacher Sandy Hodson dishes up a special treat for one of the students this week as part of her non-instructional tasks. Teachers are set to begin strike action Monday.

KVR Middle School teacher Sandy Hodson dishes up a special treat for one of the students this week as part of her non-instructional tasks. Teachers are set to begin strike action Monday.

Kevin Epp doesn’t think Premier Christy Clark should have been wearing a pink shirt in support of anti-bullying day Wednesday, considering the nature of the legislation just announced by Education Minister George Abbott.

Bill 22 imposes a cooling off period, extending the teachers’ previous contract to June 2012 and appoints a mediator to help the B.C. Teachers Federation and the B.C. Public Schools Employers Association come to a negotiated agreement. It also contains a $175 million learning improvement fund that the province says will put more money into the classroom and improves support for students and teachers.

The move prompted teachers to announce strike action for next week.

“We are truly disappointed by the union’s decision to hold a three-day  strike beginning next week,” said Abbott. “A strike of this nature will significantly disrupt student learning and creates tremendous concern for parents and families.”

Epp, president of the Okanagan Skaha Teachers’ Union, pointed out Bill 22 also sets out a strict set of guidelines for the mediator, removes class size and composition from the negotiating table and sets new class size limits. It also imposes severe financial penalties if strike action should continue after the bill is passed — $475 per day per teacher and higher fines for union leaders and the BCTF.

“I haven’t felt this disgusted since Bill 26 and 27 stripped our contract in 2001,” said Epp. “Yesterday, when Minister Abbott introduced Bill 22, what he put out was a clear road map that the Liberal government has to destroy the relationship with teachers … to completely take away the small protections that were in place for students in terms of class size limits and support for special needs students.”

Epp said that Bill 22 removes the teachers’ input in determining whether the class limit can be exceeded, or allowing more than three students with special education needs. Now, he said, administrators will be able to make that decision alone.

“Districts can build the classes to the absolute maximum in every single classroom without any further repercussions,” said Epp. “The most efficient way to save dollars is to pack classrooms and further take away any kind of support for special needs students.”

Abbott said the learning improvement fund is aimed at helping special needs students, including the possibility of hiring more teachers and educational assistants or expanding the skill sets of existing educators.

While the process is changing, Okanagan Skaha Board of Education chair Ginny Manning expects teachers will still be involved in the decision-making process, and hopes changes to the process will be positive.

“The process will change from what it has been,” said Manning. “The current process is dysfunctional, you can see that from the inordinate amount of grievances and the enormous amount of money that goes to arbitration that could go to the classroom.”

Manning recognizes that the legislation will likely cause some hard feelings on the part of the teachers, but added that the district will be working to maintain their good relations with the instructional staff.

“We understand how hard they work and how many hours they put in and how much they care for kids,” said Manning, adding that the district supported a recent resolution from the B.C. School Trustees Association encouraging the province to bring in a mediator to help settle the dispute.

“A negotiated settlement is the best solution to any dispute of this nature,” said Manning.

Epp said the teachers would have welcomed the move as well, but in this case, the mediator will be working under a narrow mandate set out in Bill 22.

Abbott, however, said the BCTF stance on the mediator isn’t constructive, especially since they had been requesting just that.

“When we committed to a mediator and put in issues that were requested by both the employer and the BCTF, but were going to have that structured on the basis of net zero, the disposition of the BCTF to embrace a mediator suddenly changed and it became a nefarious thing aimed at undermining the union,” said Abbott. “I still believe that having a thoughtful, constructive mediator is the route to having a negotiated settlement.”