The tentative agreement between the province and school support staff brings a certain sense of relief, but it's only a lull in the perpetual state of negotiating. The time and energy spent hammering out contracts detracts from the education of children, and we must put those children first.
Canadian Union of Public Employees local presidents across B.C. have endorsed a deal that will see non-teaching school employees receive a 3.5 per cent wage increase spread over two years. It's a modest increase for a group that hasn't had a raise in four years, but it's probably realistic, given current financial conditions.
That agreement warded off a potential strike by support staff, which would have closed schools, since the B.C. Teachers' Federation had vowed not to cross CUPE picket lines.
The teachers themselves are without a contract. The last contract was signed in June 2012; it was retroactive to the previous year and expired this past June.
Talks for the new contract are on hold, and will likely not resume until the B.C. Supreme Court rules on the dispute between the BCTF and the government regarding the government's response to a 2011 ruling by the court.
In April 2011, Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin ruled the government violated teachers' constitutional rights in 2002 by passing legislation that stripped them of their right to bargain for issues such as class size, class composition and teacherstudent ratios. The government was given a year to set things straight, but the BCTF says the measures taken by the government were a sham, and the government has continued using the provisions found unconstitutional.
The contract agreed to last week by CUPE expires next summer. Like most contracts in public education these days, the majority of it is retroactive. It won't be long before work will begin on new negotiations.
Premier Christy Clark wants 10 years of education labour peace; most parents (and probably most teachers) would be happy just to have a peacefully settled contract that looks forward, rather than back. A constant state of agitation and uncertainty is wearing on everyone, especially students. Too much of the public discussion has focused on labour issues, and too little on education.
That doesn't mean teachers should roll over and let the government walk all over them. To be effective, they need to be adequately compensated and reasonably certain about their jobs. They need to be able to work in conditions conducive to good education and strong morale.
Nor should the government give in to every demand from the teachers' union. It is public education, and politicians are elected to safeguard the public interest.
Relations between the two sides must be, to a certain degree, adversarial - that's the nature of negotiations - but when they are downright poisonous, there are no winners, and the loser is education.
For instance, a report by the Educational Quest Society of Canada shows that B.C. students' performance in math has deteriorated in the 21st century.
At a time when the world is becoming increasingly technical, we cannot afford to let our students slip in math and sciences.
Government and teachers should figure out a framework that frees the school system from perpetual negotiation and looks to the future.
This editorial first appeared in the Times Colonist
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