Since being appointed Education Minister last March, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting 95 schools and half of the province’s 60 school districts. I’ve met with hundreds of teachers, students, parents and administrators.
Every visit and every meeting has only reinforced in my mind that British Columbia has a great education system, filled with people who are passionate about what they do. I’ve seen first-hand how important teachers are to student success.
I also know how important it is for teaching assistants, administrators, principals, parents and teachers to work together to support learning. It takes co-operation and a team of people to help students reach their full potential.
Unfortunately, the current teacher’s strike makes this kind of co-operation virtually impossible.
Teachers are not attending staff meetings or any other meetings at which the principal is present. There are no written communications with principals, whether they are student marks, progress reports, or report cards.
Unfortunately, it is often the very students most in need of our educational teams who bear the brunt of the union’s actions.
Almost a year ago, employers and the teachers’ union sat down to negotiate a new contract. We made it clear from the outset that we had a net-zero mandate.
But, employers also wanted to talk about how to improve benefits for teachers, how to ensure the right teachers are matched to the right jobs, and how to support good teachers, so they can become great teachers.
Then last fall, government put $165 million in new funding on the table to deal with class composition issues. Like all other offers on the table – the teachers union walked away from discussions on how to best use those funds.
Their singular focus has been to secure a large salary increase – 15 per cent over three years – and other major compensation improvements estimated at over $2 billion.
Despite 11 months of negotiations and nearly 80 bargaining sessions, there are few signs of progress.
We have successfully negotiated agreements with all other major public sector unions. The teachers’ union, unfortunately, steadfastly refuses to accept B.C.’s economic and financial reality.
The strike is having a real impact on students and creating a strain in our schools and classrooms. There is rising anxiety amongst all educational partners about the length of time this dispute has gone on and the impact on 500,000 students across B.C.
Government would prefer to negotiate an agreement, but we cannot let the current impasse drift indefinitely.
I am simply not prepared to see a school year pass without every parent in B.C. getting a fulsome accounting of how their children are progressing in school. I am particularly concerned about the impact on vulnerable students.
This past week, in an effort to resolve this issue, I asked Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid to appoint a neutral party to inquire into the status of negotiations. It may well be that this individual can find reasons to be optimistic about continuing negotiations – or it may be that government will need to look at other ways to resolve the dispute.
I sincerely hope the neutral party, working with the employers and the teachers union, can help us find that constructive path.
George Abbott is the Minister of Education.