Education Minister Peter Fassbender released a statement yesterday afternoon saying the BC Public School Employers' Association would come to the bargaining table today with a six-year deal and a "time-limited" signing bonus for teachers.
If agreed upon, the deal would be the longest teacher contract in provincial history, one year longer than the negotiated settlement reached in 2006. But it's still shorter than the 10-year deal the government has pursued since spring 2013.
A six-year contract "will open the door to a 10-year agreement next," read the statement. The decision for both proposed changes was made after Fassbender met with Premier Christy Clark about teacher bargaining.
It's been 16 months since negotiations began between the teachers' union and the Employers' Association, with no end in sight. Teachers have been in stage one of a possible three-stage strike since April 22, refusing to formally meet or converse with administrators or supervise students outside of class time.
Although there is no timeline for this stage, there has been wide speculation the union would move to second stage -- rotating one-day-per-week walkouts -- before the end of the school year.
Minister Fassbender was not available to answer questions yesterday, but the BC Teachers' Federation held a press conference at their Vancouver headquarters almost two hours after the government's announcement.
"Today the minster of education finally announced government is ready to get a little more serious about bargaining, and teachers appreciate that," said union president Jim Iker.
The union is pleased the 10-year deal, which Iker said was more about "partisan politics and electioneering than sound educational policy," is finally off the table.
The union president wouldn't talk about the government's proposed changes, as teachers will not see the details until bargaining resumes today, May 16. Iker did say, however, that while a move to a six-year contract brings them closer to a deal, he would rather see any signing bonus money go into teachers' salary grids.
The government's release made no mention of any change to its proposal for class size and composition levels, which will leave class sizes as they are. The union wants class size and composition, and the ratio of students to specialist teachers like teacher librarians and counsellors, restored to 2001 levels.
Class size and composition still unclear
Two B.C. Supreme Court decisions found the government unconstitutionally violated teachers' rights by stripping class size and composition levels in 2002 and refusing to let teachers negotiate them until this round of bargaining.
The union maintains it is still not allowed to bargain these working conditions as the employers' association has yet to sway from its proposal that class sizes stay as they are. There are currently no limits on class composition.
The government is appealing the B.C. Supreme Court's second decision, released Jan. 27, that found the government again violated teachers' rights by refusing to let them bargain class size and composition levels during the 2012 contract negotiations. The appeal will be heard this fall.
Iker would not comment on whether a deal could be reached without changes to class size and composition or teacher ratios. If the government doesn't change its proposals in those areas, he said they'll "deal with that at the bargaining table."
Peter Cameron, government spokesperson on bargaining, informed Iker of the government's decision to change two proposals on the table early yesterday afternoon.
But Iker was still surprised by Fassbender's public statement two hours later. The union president suspects the minister's motives for talking about the changes publicly were political.
"We know that in recent polls they got a poor rating on the handling of education, so maybe that's why they've done it, for some political gain. Who knows?" he said.
An Insights West poll released yesterday revealed over 60 per cent of British Columbians polled were unhappy with how the government was handling teacher negotiations.
Another 23 per cent were pleased with the government's bargaining so far, while 14 per cent were unsure.
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