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George Abbott's future undecided

Education Minister George Abbott is skirting rumours he is about to retire from politics after 33 years, but still has plenty to say about the future of the ministry that he says has been his favourite to work with.

In a conference call with B.C. reporters earlier this afternoon, Minister Abbott gave a brief speech about what he believes are exciting new developments for K-12 education in the province.

These included the second anniversary of full-day kindergarten, the hiring of two new superintendents that will cover reading and Aboriginal achievement, and the over 50,000 hits and 5,000 suggestions the BC Education Plan website has received since it was launched last fall.

But the first question cut right to the chase: will Abbott be running in the upcoming provincial election next May?

"I have not made a final decision on that, but I will not be keeping you in suspense for long. I'm hoping to announce a decision in that regard in the immediate days ahead," he told reporters.

Abbott did add, however, that the Ministry of Education has been his favourite ministry to work with, and his musings on retirement have nothing to do with the year-long labour dispute between the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) and the Ministry that finally ended this past June.

"Would I have preferred to have been education minister during a period when we had labour peace? Absolutely," he said.

"It's not like this has taken a big toll on me; it's been challenging but I've been through tougher circumstances than the labour relations of last year."

Though his days at the Education Ministry may be numbered, Abbott had no shortage of opinions on how to improve education in B.C., hoping to take it from a "good educational system (to) a very good, and perhaps one day a world-leading educational system."

He touched on a possible change in class sizes for shop classes for safety reasons, or training special needs teachers in shop in order to provide extra safety and help to students with special needs.

Abbott also speculated on the amalgamation of school districts, saying he doesn't believe 60 districts is necessary. He says last year, given the labour dispute with the teachers, was a good time to bring up the idea, but discussions about it with districts most-suited to amalgamation will likely happen this year.

"What I've asked the Ministry (staff) to do is to look at ways in which we can eliminate any disincentives to having districts amalgamate or cooperate, ie. getting rid of any disincentives that discourage looking at that," Abbott said.

"And also looking at the potential of putting in some positive incentives to either share or amalgamate portions of our operations."

Abbott also addressed the issue of improving the 40 plus years of bad blood between the teachers' union and the government, which he had pledged to do when he took over the portfolio in late 2010.

After a year-long battle with the teachers' union that ended with teachers' begrudgingly accepting a "net-zero" contract, Abbott says the teachers' and government need to be willing to work together.

"The (BCTF) and ministry and government are, whether we like it or not, educational partners. Improving that relationship, I think, really requires a lot of time spent together, a lot of discussion of the issues which concern each side of the party," he says.

"At least in those kind of discussions you get to understand the partner and their perspective better."

That might prove easier said than done, however, if Abbott remains in office. In a telephone conversation with The Tyee after Abbott's press conference, BCTF President Susan Lambert says B.C. needs a new education minister because teachers do not trust Abbott.

"This Education Minister basically betrayed us. He came in saying he wanted to forge a better relationship, more respectful with teachers, and in the end he completely betrayed that objective and the trust he had from teachers," she said.

"I think we'll a new minister of education, or someone who actually has the ability to implement their promises."

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

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