Five-year deal fraught with problems

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Five years of labour peace in education hasn’t been worth the funding instability that has resulted since all 62 Alberta school boards bought into the 2007 deal that stabilized salary increases and wiped out teachers’ unfunded pension liability. The province placed most of the blame for funding shortfalls squarely at the feet of teachers, a point all educators should consider when deciding whether or not to sign another five-year contract.

The deal was supposed to bring labour peace to the province as the Tories were facing an election. In exchange for salary increases tied to the Alberta average weekly earnings index, teachers gave up their bargaining rights until 2012. What should have brought stability to education has instead created a financial quagmire affecting staffing, class sizes and programming for which the province is happy to blame educators.

While teachers have honoured their part of the five-year pact, the government has flirted with breaking it outright during the last two years. In 2010, the government decided it would not hand over the money to school boards for the negotiated salary increase for the coming year, but begged every single district to use reserves and scrimp and save in order to retain staff levels. Granted, the decision came after Statistics Canada changed the formula for calculating the index, but the Alberta government knew before it set its budget the change was coming. The implied message the government was trying to get across was clear — teachers are costing us too much money. While the province later came through with the necessary funding, most school boards had already set their budgets.

This year, the government hasn’t been nearly as discreet in its willingness to lay blame. Premier Ed Stelmach himself blamed teachers for the round of “heartbreaking” budgets school boards have been forced to pass, with hundreds of teachers across the province now staring unemployment in the face. This time the government was more than willing to fund the legislated salary increase, but at the expense of numerous other grants such as class size initiative and the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement that funds innovative teaching projects. With funding for teachers’ salaries but little else, it came as no surprise that teachers would bear the brunt of the government’s actions. Locally, the Catholic division is swallowing a $500,000 deficit. The Protestant division passed a $1.9-million deficit, tapping its reserves and saving layoffs for any declines in enrolment come September.

In all of this, Stelmach announced $550 million to build 22 new schools and upgrade 13. How can we build new schools when education as a whole has no consistent revenue stream on which to rely when it comes to staffing? Why can we find capital money so easily, in this time of provincial deficit, when operating dollars are so hard to come by? How has five years of labour peace translated into an education-funding nightmare?

The Alberta Teachers’ Association was willing to hear the government out at budget time, to consider putting off some increases in order to help lighten the deficit burden. Now the end result is fewer teachers and programs with larger classes consisting of students with different needs. What is really needed, especially in a public education system, is predictable funding sources that school boards can rely on year after year without the constant rise and fall we are experiencing now. This five-year deal didn’t provide that, most notably because no one saw a recession coming. Any future deals, in whatever shape they take, should factor in both the good and the bad to reduce the overall impact.

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