Trustee balks at consultant costs

Trustee Tom Siddon has added his voice to concerns raised over the hiring of a consultant to help with upcoming labour negotiations with the Okanagan Skaha Teachers Union.

Trustee Tom Siddon has added his voice to concerns raised over the hiring of a consultant to help with upcoming labour negotiations with the Okanagan Skaha Teachers Union.

Siddon, who wasn’t at the March 14 in camera meeting when the consultant was hired, raised concerns that the selection had been made and voted on in a closed meeting.

“I am just hoping that, on matters not to do with sensitive issues … but on issues of hiring a consultant, that we would be open about the process and why we reached the decision we did,” said Siddon. “There is nothing about this issue that is serious enough, that following the process in the retention of a consultant can’t be discussed in public.”

Last month, Trustee Dave Perry raised his own concerns over the $800 per day contract that the Board of Education had awarded to retired district employee Dave Stigant to assist the board in upcoming negotiations with the teachers union.

Ginny Manning, chair of the board of education, defends the decision to hire Stigant. At present, she said, there is no one on staff with experience in conducting these sort of negotiations, and Stigant will not only lead this year’s negotiations, but mentor current staff members in the process.

Superintendent of schools Wendy Hyer said the contract has a termination clause, and is limited by policy to not exceed $25,000.

“We don’t expect it to be anywhere near that cost,” said Hyer. “We expect approximately five days of local negotiating to occur.”

According to Manning, the other issue raised, over whether the school district should be hiring a consultant that is already on a government pension, played no part in the decision-making process.

“We would look at the best person for the job, or that would be able to do the best work,” she said.

Assistant superintendent Dave Burgoyne confirms that the district has no policy against hiring retired teachers to fill teacher-on-call positions, choosing to employ the best candidate for their needs, regardless.

Stigant, who was an assistant superintendent specializing in human resources when he worked for the Okanagan Skaha School District, led the district’s negotiating team during the last round of contract negotiations. While the major issues of salaries, benefits, hours of work and paid leave are conducted at the provincial level, each district also has several contract issues to be negotiated locally.

“When you are looking at the provincial bargaining and the money pieces, those are consistent pieces, but each district has its own local contract pieces,” said Connie Denesiuk, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association and a trustee with Okanagan Skaha.

“Districts will be looking at being fair to employees, but keeping in front of their minds looking after students,” she said. “When you are negotiating, if it is not done with people that are experienced and good at it, there could be mistakes made. And we don’t want to make mistakes, because at the end of the day, it is going to come at the expense of the classroom. And by mistakes, I mean monetary, far beyond the $4,000.”

Hiring a consultant was also necessary, according to Manning, to balance both sides of the negotiating table. While Kevin Epp, president of OSTU, admits his team gets training and support from the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, he contends that the district also has resources that make hiring a consultant an unwise use of financial resources.

“We have probably had each, in total, somewhere between four and five days of workshop-based training about bargaining and the collective bargaining process,” said Epp, adding that the board pays to belong to BC Public School Employers’ Association, which has worked on behalf of boards on negotiating previous contracts.

“To say that a board is entering bargaining with either CUPE or the BCTF without any support is not accurate. They’re not babes in the woods, going in to get beat up by some enormous union machine,” said Epp. “Both parties have provincial organizations that are, in my opinion, equally resourced and equally skilled at supporting their local parties.”