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Education Minister Fassbender 'excited' about new school year

Education Minister Peter Fassbender is excited about the 2013/14 schoolyear. For a ministry possibly facing two different labour disputes this fall, even he admitted to reporters this was odd.

But in a live teleconference with reporters earlier this afternoon, Fassbender touched on all the reasons he has for smiling: replacement for BCeSIS, optimism for contract negotiation outcomes, unveiling more of the BC Education Plan, and finding more savings from school boards after his ministry has “invested significantly and continue to do so in education.”

Here are some of the highlights of what Minister Fassbender had to say, complete with background information.


“We’re also looking at a number of other ways to use technology, that’s why we’re replacing the BCeSIS program with new technology that has shown that it can provide significant benefits to school districts: to students, parents, teachers. So we’re investing in that to make sure that we stay ahead of the technology curve.”

The BC Teachers’ Federation has been speaking out about issues with BCeSIS, a student data information collecting service, since it was unveiled in 2005. Connected to just one server for 56 districts, 130 independent schools, and 20 First Nation schools, teachers complained the program was slow and clunky, often crashing.

Originally costed at $16 million, it’s cost government $97 million to try to improve on the system. A 2011 government-mandated BCeSIS review conducted by Gartner, Inc., an information technology research and advisory company, recommended he program be replaced in one to three years.

Earlier this summer government announced Aspen, a Follett Corporation data management program, would replace BCeSIS this school year.

On support workers’ bargaining

Support workers’ unions are back at the negotiation table for the fourth round of collective bargaining since their contracts ended in June 2012.

CUPE-BC, which represents support workers at 53 of the province’s 60 school districts, has conducted strike votes with most of its locals. That means if enough progress isn’t made during those three sessions, it’s likely workers will be walking out and shutting down classes. But Fassbender refused to discuss that possibility:

“I’m very optimistic as the negotiators get back at the table on the 4th, 5th, and 6th of September that they’re going to do their job. They’re all very capable. I believe we can find a solution, that is my hope, and they are going to work together to get there.”

“I’m not going to presume anything at this stage. I want to see a school year without any interruptions, that’s my goal, and I’ve heard CUPE say that’s their goal, as well.”

One reporter asked, does the minister have a Plan B if negotiations don’t work out?

“We’re at the negotiating table. I’m not going to compromise that in any way, shape, or form. We have one plan: that is to come to a settlement, to avoid any disruption. That’s the goal, and that’s what the negotiators are going to do at the table.”

On education funding

In a ministry press release issued earlier this week, they boasted again that education-funding levels are at an all time high of $4.75 billion, which is the same as last year and supposed to remain frozen until 2016.

When asked when boards could expect an increase in education funding, Fassbender had this to say:

“We’re investing more money in education, at record levels, than we ever have.”

“The reason that we’ve worked so hard on a strong economic plan for the future is that we can ensure our economy stays strong, we can continue to promote industrial development, things like LNG, so that we can start to see balanced budgets help us, and future revenue pay off our debt, and then we can start to invest more dollars in some of the key areas of which health care, education, social services are a key.”

On district savings plans

Last December, then-Education Minister Don McRae announced school boards would be expected to submit district savings plans to fund any support workers’ raises.

This didn’t go well at the time and the ministry seemed to walk back those comments by late January. But they’ve resurfaced again, and districts are alarmed they will have to make more cuts in order to fund the salary increases support workers are demanding.

Many districts still don’t have savings plans submitted, and the minister spoke to that:

“We’re working closely with them to find those kinds of shared services opportunities and a host of other things that will net the positive results. And I can tell you I’m aware of school districts who have been able to work hard with our ministry staff in looking at those savings. They’ve found them and I believe that it proves to me that when we have a clear objective and we want to find a resolution that we can work together to get there.”

“I would have loved to have said to you that every school district has met those targets. Some have more challenges than others. I would say a large majority of them are well underway and many of them have it in place. Those that don’t, the ministry staff is working with them to ensure that they get there as quickly as possible.”

Some districts have already made significant cuts to this year’s budget. The New Westminster school district has cut staffing levels by eight per cent already to account for $4.1 million deficit. Fassbender was asked where districts like New Westminster could possibly find other savings:

“I’m not going to impose anything on them, I think they need to continue to do the work that they’re doing with our ministry staff. As with other districts who had similar challenges, they’ve been able to get there and I believe New Westminster can as well.”

BC Education Plan

The BC Education Plan was announced in 2011 under then-Education Minister George Abbott. Yet there is no concrete document outlining what exactly the plan is. Fassbender mentioned the plan in his opening statement to reporters, so The Tyee asked him when we could expect more details on the plan?

“We have released some details. If you go onto the ministry website, you’ll see some of the work that’s already been done.”

“As we continue to evolve that in various stages, we’ll be releasing that as we’re ready and we have something of substance to put out there.”

“It’s going to be ongoing. The work has gone on last year. More work is going to be happening this year. So I think that we will continue to bring that information out, and really it’s a living document. One of the beauties of this is we recognize the world changes very quickly, and any plan has to be flexible enough to meet the changing environment that we’re in.”

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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