Maddy Reilly

Maddy Reilly

2014’s top stories No. 6: Teachers walk the line

It wasn’t exclusively a local story, but it probably affected more people than any other event in 2014.

It wasn’t exclusively a local story, but it probably affected more people than any other event in 2014.

On April 23, Kootenay Lake district teachers joined their colleagues around the province in withdrawing administrative and volunteer duties to put pressure on the government and BC Public School Employers Association during contract negotiations. That thrust administration staff into supervisory roles before and after school and during recess and lunch.

The province was pushing for a 10-year contract agreement to replace one that expired in June 2013, but the BC Teachers’ Federation was having none of it. The union said its biggest issue was class size and composition, something the government would not discuss.

On May 28 and June 5, local teachers participated in rotating strike action, closing schools for a day.

“Teachers in our community, like teachers across BC, don’t take this job action lightly,” said Paul Boscariol, president of the Nelson District Teachers’ Association. “As teachers, we care deeply about our students and empathize with parents who have to re-work their schedules. Many of us are parents too. This job action is about more than a fair collective agreement. It is also about standing up for public education.”

Trafalgar students walked out of class to show solidarity with their teachers.

Grade 7 student Maddy Reilly was supposed to leave for a field trip to Alberta, but ended up standing on a sidewalk with a homemade sign instead.

“We’re sick and tired. All the students, including me, are sick of being in the middle of this,” she said. “[Teachers] are taking care of 20 to 29 students every day and they don’t get paid enough.”

Meanwhile, a Nelson school psychologist who put in more than 70 hours of unpaid overtime to provide trauma support following the drownings of four young people on Slocan Lake found himself docked 10 per cent — nearly $600 — along with other teachers for “job action” that hadn’t yet taken place.

Todd Kettner (seen at left) wrote an open letter to the premier that was seen by thousands of people online and received provincial media attention. A few days later, the Ministry of Education said his overtime would be recognized and his pay restored. However, Kettner said that missed his point, which was about making sure children and community members receive the support they need.

On June 17, with no agreement in sight, a full-scale walkout began (seen below). The Labour Relations Board deemed provincial exams for senior high school students an essential service, which were supervised and marked by administrators.

Superintendent Jeff Jones said teachers and administrators worked together to “negotiate shifting boundaries and expectations and to maintain our emphasis on meeting students’ needs, even as the action escalated.” However, he acknowledged “tensions are rising.”

Three weeks went by and the regular school year ended without an agreement. Pickets came down, which allowed CUPE support staff to resume their normal schedules.

The summer break ended and still no deal. On what should have been the first day of school, more than 500 parents, teachers, and children took to the streets in Nelson for a public education march (seen below) after mediator Vince Ready walked away from talks, saying the sides were too far apart.

Following marathon bargaining, a tentative deal was reached September 16, giving teachers raises totaling 7.25 per cent over six years, improved benefits, and a fund to hire hundreds of new teachers each year. A few days later, teachers voted 86 per cent in favour the agreement.

The same week classes resumed, however, local teachers took a previously-scheduled professional development day. Although it may have been a bitter pill for some, Jones defended the decision. He conceded the district explored the idea of rescheduling but opted not to.

“We decided it was highly appropriate, for the first time since April, to give teachers a chance to work together on the challenges and opportunities they’re facing,” he said.

The settlement means an extra $754,000 in salary, benefits, and other increases for Kootenay Lake district teachers in 2014/15, which the province has agreed to cover. While that’s normal in provincially-bargained settlements, it wasn’t the case in 2013 when the government told districts to come up with a savings plan to pay for a wage increase for support staff.

The Kootenay Lake district was the last holdout in the province, before it capitulated in the face of potential job action.