Education

New school year, same problems

Alberta teachers are still in strike position over stalled contract talks

No doubt by now, we’ve all seen that brilliant Alice Cooper commercial
featuring the Godfather of Shock Rock shopping for back-to-school supplies.
Really? You haven’t? Well, if you want, check out it out at
www.alicecoopersweb.com. Funny stuff. But the appearance of Mr. Cooper and
his daughter planning for the new school year reminds us that while many
parents and their kids are making plans to head back to the ole schoolyard in
Alberta, there is a dark side to the traditional Back to Books plan. Teachers
in Edmonton (and in Calgary and other jurisdictions) are without a contract
and over 10,000 Alberta teachers are in a strike position.

In Edmonton, teachers wanted their instructional time limited to 1,400
minutes a week, something that was part of the teacher’s collective
agreement for over 30 years until 2002, when it was stripped by Bill 12. The
Edmonton Public School Board refused to ensure that cap so on June 7,
teachers voted for strike action. A meeting between the Edmonton School Board
and its teachers is scheduled for August 26, but the grim spectre of a strike
nonetheless hangs in the air.

“The possibility is there,” says Frank Bruseker, President of the
Alberta Teacher’s Association (ATA). “I think parents have a
right to be concerned, and the fact that negotiations of the umbrella
agreement have come to no success, I don’t think that has offered any
assistance in relieving the concerns of Edmonton and Calgary public
teachers.”

The umbrella agreement that Bruseker talks about is the collective agreement
plan first put forth by the provincial Minister of Learning. Lyle Oberg first
offered to pay the ATA’s portion of their unfunded pension liability,
$1.9 billion in return for a 10-year collective agreement. The ATA balked at
the contract’s length, but responded with a five-year deal that
accepted a one-year wage freeze, followed by annual raises based on the
average weekly earnings index, which normally has meant increase of two to
three per cent a year. The ATA made that proposal last week but Bruseker says
he’s yet to hear from Oberg about it.

“No response, no communication from the minister at all and in fact I
was at a meeting on Friday with the deputy minister and the deputy minister
didn’t have any comment either,” says Bruseker. “I would
love to have the opportunity to chat with the minister, and I don’t
know why he hasn’t responded; maybe he’s given up. The message at
the beginning at last week was any money that was available for resolving the
teacher’s pension plan is now gone and now is used to reduce class
size.”

The government announced in July that it hoped to reduce class sizes by
increasing funding to hire 2,200 teachers over the next three years. The ATA
says that announcement is positive news, provided those new teachers start
showing up in the classrooms and class sizes get smaller. Until then, the ATA
wants details. “We have requested from the provincial a breakdown of
which school boards are getting how much money, how many teachers are they
expected to hire with that money, but we have been refused on two separate
occasions, right up to the deputy minister level,” he says.
“I’m disappointed in that response because it’s public
money for public education, so why can’t that information be given out
to the public? They are the ones paying for it.”

News reports have the Learning Minister saying the money for the pension plan
is still on the table but the ATA hasn’t heard any official word to
that and its collective agreement proposal. That, and the government’s
lack of response to the ATA about other education issues, surprises Frank
Bruseker, since the Tories are expected to call an election for the late
fall. “I would think that it would be advantageous to the government to
resolve the issues with the teachers before they launch an election campaign.
I hope that that’s their intent,” he says. “One of the
problems we still have is we don’t have stable and predictable funding
for education for school boards and member schools.”
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