Middle ground must be found
It is time for some perspective. I am a learning resource teacher in a Grade 8 to 12 school in Vernon. As most people know, teachers are on strike at the moment.
Phase one of our strike action is designed to have minimal impact on student learning, but hopefully cause some inconveniences for our school and district-level administrators so they can in turn report to their bosses that they need teachers back to work fully. It is the same game we have played too many times.
Our school experienced a tragedy recently. A Grade 9 boy was killed in a motor vehicle accident. Late that night, phone calls were being made to everyone that works in the school: teachers, secretaries, administrators, teacher aides, lunch supervisors, breakfast volunteers, and counsellors. I am sure I have missed some.
Schools and teaching aren't just about education – far from it many times. This is an extreme example, but on a daily basis, every adult that works in a school is forming relationships with young people. For many of our students, the school provides the most secure, predictable setting they have.
Some students as young as 15 or 16 are living on their own, with no parent guiding them out the door. Many students arrive at school without breakfast or lunch. The types and levels of abuse many face outside of the school are beyond comprehension for those of us that have been fortunate enough to live a “normal” life.
All of this of course is tied up in an ongoing battle between the B.C. Teachers Federation and the government of B.C. The BCTF threatens to close down schools in a full-strike and the government does what it can to push teachers into a walkout, presumably to gain enough public support so they can once again legislate teachers back to work, enforcing whatever contract they decide.
Both sides are locked into an old industrial union model that has nothing to do with what actually goes on inside of a school. If a society is judged by how it treats its weakest members, then we are truly in a sad state.
Any time a school is closed, it is the lowest and the weakest that suffer most, yet somehow this has become a completely acceptable path to follow. On the one side, a government that seems to regard education primarily as an expense, and does whatever it can to lower expenses, and on the other side, a large union that comes to the table with inflated wage demands stating it is part of the “process.”
I would doubt anyone, on either side honestly believes that their opening offers are reasonable, yet here we are again going down a path that causes so much harm.
The government tells the public that educational spending is at an all-time high, knowing full well it is only a partial truth. Enrolment has been declining, but the cost of running schools has been increasing faster than inflation.
The cost of all the utilities needed to run a school doesn’t change whether there are 1,500 students or 1,000. The government is spending more than it did. However, the increases have not kept up with inflation, not kept up with the increases in utility costs, and not kept up with the reality that buildings cost the same to run whether they are at capacity or not.
Every stakeholder that works in the education system will say the same thing: there isn’t enough money in the system. It is a 10-year trend and there is nothing left to give. Talk to a trustee, a school board member, a teacher, a principal, a custodian, a bus driver, anyone that has worked in a school over the last 10 years and they will have a situation to share outlining the impact of declining money in schools.
For its part, the BCTF is just as guilty of playing the same game - unrealistic wage demands that have no chance of being accepted given the current financial state of our province.
The problem is that the government comes to the table, with even less money on the table than other public service unions have agreed to. There is plenty of debate and statistic-twisting attempting to show how B.C.’s teachers are paid compared to teachers in other parts of the country.
Regardless of whose numbers one accepts, it is clear that B.C. teachers rank towards the bottom in terms of pay. This in a province that ranks near the top in terms of cost of living.
It isn’t realistic to expect teachers in B.C. to suddenly be at the top, but isn’t some minor adjustment reasonable? Isn’t cost of living on a yearly basis reasonable?
The government claims to want a 10-year deal, yet refuses to present anything reasonable. From my perspective, the BCTF has every right to call foul, but they have become so entrenched in the usual game they cannot even envision a possible divergent path.
Education is only one of the services that schools and teachers provide. Schools provide a stable base to far too many students that do not have one elsewhere.
They provide food and clothing to the least fortunate, not to mention counselling, guidance, mentorship and friendship.
At no time is that strong sense of community in a school more present than following a very unfortunate tragedy. Some how, that got lost.
Our government wants to approach education as a business, looking to save a buck where ever they can. The BCTF has the strike hammer of closing schools, the pattern we all know too well.
But it isn’t OK, touting the greater good of needed change at the expense of those most needy in our communities. If a full strike does come, it is the most vulnerable that will suffer and when another tragedy impacts a school community, where will those most needy turn when the buildings are closed behind pickets?
It is time for both sides to come to the table with reasonable offers and work together to find a middle ground. If they cannot do it themselves, bring in an arbitrator who is completely free to act independently to find a fair settlement for everyone involved.
Enough is enough.