Sunday, January 30, 2011

BCPSEA - the wrong people to bargain with teachers

The BC Public School Employer's Association is not popular with teachers. It was imposed as a provincial bargaining agent in the mid-90's and teachers were denied their right to bargain locally, directly with their school Trustees. BCPSEA has failed to negotiate agreements in every round of bargaining except 2006, when a government signing bonus was on the table. Government intervention has been used in every other case.

BCPSEA is not an organization of educators. It's employees are bureaucrats with very large salaries who typically have degrees in HR or business. These are the people that are entrusted with negotiating with teachers to reach the best collective agreements to serve Boards of Education who deliver educational programs in schools. It just doesn't make sense. And it is galling to read one of the first "tweets" from BCPSEA announcing their entrance to the twittersphere:

"Spread the word in your District. BCPSEA updates now on Twitter. The first and most accurate factual information on education issues."

Perhaps if you go to your lawyer or banker to seek information and expertise on educational issues, you might equally trust BCPSEA. I personally would ask an educator.

Local teacher associations around the province are frustrated with the impact BCPSEA has had on relations with their local school Boards. Every time we try to work with Boards to modify our collective agreements where a provision clearly isn't working for either party, BCPSEA interferes. This has hampered our ability to discuss standardized testing, class size and composition, the school year, to name just a few issues. These issues are critical to students and families, and their interests should not be represented by unaccountable bureaucrats.

BCPSEA is accountable to almost no one. Yes, they are directed by a Council elected by representatives of school Trustees. But that is a far cry from the type of accountability that locally elected Trustees have. We used to negotiate directly with these locally elected Trustees. If a Board did something unpopular in the community, the Trustees would know come the next election. In contrast, BCPSEA employees never answer to the public. A parent can phone their Trustee. They would have trouble getting in touch with their BCPSEA representative and they would have even more trouble having them listen and act on their concern.

It is interesting that the one small piece of accountability there is - the election of the Chair by Trustee reps - actually got exercised this weekend. In a suprise "upset" (as Janet Steffenhagen called it), former Chair Ron Christensen was ousted and replaced by Mel Joy at last weekend's BCPSEA Annual General Meeting. I hope this was a response to the decades long failure of BCPSEA to act in a way that assists and improves Boards' ability to deliver quality education.

Teachers are hoping this round to bargain a whole lot more with our local Boards. We believe that sensible solutions to local issues that will serve the local community are best made by those who live and work there and understand the needs. They are best developed by those directly elected by the parents and citizens in that community.


  1. Beautiful! Glad to see the BCPSEA problematized! They definitely do *not* represent the interests of the public, the values of professional educationists, or the needs of students. The class and power dynamics here are critical; but, sadly, many of us ignore or avoid the implications of stratified power. For instance, look at how de-fanged May Day has become - a holiday which commemorates the solidarity and legitimacy of labour militancy has come to be purveyed as a 'day for relaxation'. Discussions of class and power may not be in the interests of the elite, but for those of us in the trenches it's an absolute necessity. Cheers for highlighting this particular lack.

  2. Hi Tara, This is Silas White, elected trustee director at BCPSEA, also board chair on the Sunshine Coast. For both positions I feel very accountable to the public, part of which is trying to follow any concerns and feedback expressed online... But there are more similarities between my provincial and local roles, too.

    Locally and provincially, accountable trustees set direction for bargaining. But also both locally and provincially, boards delegate the actual daily work of bargaining and labour relations to professional staff. There is some local bargaining for teachers (we do a lot on the Sunshine Coast) and of course support staff, and in these cases again trustees may set direction but don't necessarily sit at the bargaining table. Boards typically have 0-2 trustees involved, and their roles are to liaison with the board and represent general board direction but not to do the legwork of bargaining. Just like BCPSEA, HR professionals and other hired staff do this.

    As far as "educators" go, I expect you're not suggesting that teachers should be bargaining with teachers, but rather that a superintendent or principal is often on a local team. Provincially, BCPSEA has a seconded superintendent on its team: Mike Roberts from Central Okanagan. Other BCPSEA staff including Hugh Finlayson and Jacquie Griffiths also used to work for school districts; if they still did under a local bargaining model, they'd be doing that work locally for trustees rather than provincially for trustees.

    Also, we all need to be realistic that the provincial government is a key player because it funds boards and also regulates both provincial and local bargaining, and numerous other aspects of education, with provincial legislation. So importantly, BCPSEA also has this representation at the table (though the majority is still trustees). As a trustee rep I feel my effectiveness at BCPSEA would be drastically reduced if we were left to merely speculate on government activity in relation to our discussions.

    Finally, the election yesterday was a positive response to Mel's candidacy rather than a negative response to Ron's. Ron has been instrumental and visionary in encouraging a younger generation of trustees, and evidently people felt it is time for this new leadership to step forward. It was bound to happen sometime, and such a generational shift will inevitably happen in other organizations, too. Maybe quite suddenly, like this was. But an election of a new chair simply cannot change BCPSEA's role, mandate and structure, which was set by the Clark government in 1994. BCPSEA does so happen to be the provincial bargaining agent to represent boards in teacher bargaining, which seems to be your main complaint about the organization... However, I do think if there is going to be a change we could all start by being a lot less adversarial. You mention the connection to parents, citizens, community and I can definitely confirm as someone elected by those people that their first wish in these matters is for both sides to cut down on the political rhetoric and work out some solutions for the best interests of our students and public education. Personally, I feel this can be accomplished at the provincial table, but I'm also open to a BCTF-BCPSEA discussion on the split of provincial/local matters.
    (I should also mention I appreciate your portrayal of boards in this posting much more than in your last posting.)

  3. Hi Tara, thanks for blogging. I like to hear your perspective, though personally I feel there are quite a few black-and-white statements in your posts.

    I'm a parent and a trustee (sd46-funnily enough same as SW above); but I'm also just a person who cares about education like you, and I assume you're open to questions since you're in the blogosphere.

    I'm curious about this statement that I've heard a few times lately:

    "BCPSEA has failed to negotiate agreements in every round of bargaining except 2006"

    Hasn't BCTF also failed to negotiate agreements in every round of bargaining except 2006?

    Only seems fair to mention that both sides failed to reach agreements. No?

    J Scott

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. A few responses.

    When we negotiate issues locally we talk to Superintendents, Associates and Principals. While we may have different viewpoints, we all share a common knowledge of life in schools. That is the piece missing when discussing issues with HR managers or lawyers or professional bargainers. It is fine to talk about salary with an HR manager, but when we discuss school based teams, or staff committees, it is essential I believe to have that common framework for discussion.

    You mention that Boards delegate bargaining to staff. That has not been the history in Victoria and I believe many districts. We always had Trustees (up to three at a time even!) sit directly on the district's local bargaining team.

    Yes the province is a player. That is why we believe the Province should provide a funding envelope for local Boards to use to bargain locally. This was the model adopted in Ontario and was very successful in allowing local Boards to allocate those resources in ways that made sense for the teachers and communities. Maybe in some Districts this will go to upgrade teacherages. Maybe in others to enhance funding for travel costs for professional development, for example.

    Trustees do direct BCPSEA, and if they thought BCPSEA was broken they could withhold their fees/participation. Boards of Education had two substantive functions at their inception: taxation and bargaining (a form of management right). Both have been removed. This, in my opinion, deprives them of much of the significant decision making authority which ought to come with that elected office. They are not functions which have been stripped from municipalities. But school Boards have become less and less relevant under this governance model. This is a shame, as they are one of the key forms of democratic control at the local level.

    On J Scott's remark about failing to negotiate. I think it is hard to blame teachers for "failing" when we have been unilaterally legislated back to work. This happened in 2002 and again in 2005. It is my honest belief that BCPSEA knew government would do this and that as a result they did not bargain meaningfully. If you would like some concrete evidence, please take a look at the court case taking place over Bill 27 and 28, in which the BCTF introduced evidence that showed the direct relationship between government legislation and BCPSEA bargaining. You can find details on the BCTF web site.

  5. Thanks for furthering the dialogue.

    I respect your opinion, and I'm not here to refute that. I'm just saying that when two parties (or groups) fail to reach an agreement in negotiations, both "sides" need to take responsibility for that. It's the only way to move forward, in my opinion.

    J Scott

  6. PART 2 (from Silas):

    There are no board fees for BCPSEA so the structural accountability component is largely through the election of trustees to the board of directors. And if trustees felt BCPSEA was broken we would definitely hear about it.

    Trustee and board participation in the Rep Council and AGM last week was more positive and extensive than I've ever seen it. I believe only one or two boards out of 60 weren't represented, due to conflicting schedules.

    I can relate to your governance comments, though at the same time I understand why the Province made these changes: equity. I live in a region (and time) where building public support for school taxes would be brutal because about half our population is over the age of 50. In regions where a higher proportion of the population is directly connected to public education, or likewise just has more per-capita wealth than others, a board would be able to raise more taxes and offer better programs to their students than in other districts.

    Bargaining is similar: as far as the distribution of funds goes, it needs to be equitable. Secondly, certainly salary harmonization and also some common working conditions, processes and other practices among teachers throughout the province would also be impossible under local bargaining. And how about porting of seniority and sick leave?
    I realize I'm now referring to the extreme of full local bargaining, but it seems as though you are, too, especially with the funding envelope suggestion.

    As far as a BCTF-BCPSEA discussion on the current provincial-local split goes, as I said before that is not a bad thought. I can speak from personal experience, though, that my district conducts quite a lot of mid-contract modification bargaining and we and our local never seem to run out of issues to work on that are already classified as local. But I also understand that the BCTF feels there can be too many restrictions around the current process for local bargaining, which would also inevitably be part of any discussion on the split.

  7. Hi Tara,

    Silas here again, still needing to get a WordPress or Google sign-in. And responding in 2 parts! (guess I just need my own blog)

    PART 1:
    At the provincial level, the role of the seconded superintendent will certainly be to represent that common knowledge of life in schools, and to share it with the rest of the bargaining team. It has also been (and will continue to be) to connect with superintendents and principals around the province to strengthen that commonality and knowledge at the table.

    He is one person, but on the other hand he has been seconded to focus on representing that educational perspective in bargaining and labour relations -- so he isn't juggling hundreds of other non-bargaining demands and urgent issues like a local superintendent would be during local bargaining. And this is actually one of local boards' greatest concerns re: local bargaining. When we have all our superintendents and other key staff focused on bargaining throughout the province (in addition to the teacher reps, of course) it can be a serious drain on the daily operations and educational focus of our system. In some districts, it simply isn't practicable.

    So why don't only the trustees bargain, then? Well we don't have that firsthand classroom/school knowledge you talk about. And I say this as someone who has been relatively active in local bargaining.

    But in addition to that classroom knowledge it is just as important to have school district HR professionals involved because they're the ones who deal with the collective agreement every day, probably have the most year-round contact with local presidents such as yourself, are most aware of all recent grievances, etc. So these HR professionals are involved at the provincial stage just as they would be at local tables.

    As I mentioned, I'm in a district where trustees are more involved than many others in bargaining -- and yet we certainly don't do the legwork because we aren't immersed in either the classroom or collective agreement as our daily work. I like to think we contribute valuable input to our team, but realistically teachers aren't "bargaining with the trustees."

    Although, I am interested in the Victoria model you mention so will check into it with present and past Victoria trustee associates. But realistically, the Victoria experience is not what most teacher locals would be looking at in local bargaining today. Just take a look at support staff tables or mid-contract modification tables, and you won't find many trustees.

    Re: the funding envelope idea, the other side of this is that it can hang boards out to dry when there isn't much to offer from provincial coffers, or in the present case, when there is net-zero to offer. So the centralization of a situation like this, when we're all under these very same conditions set by the province anyway, and there really isn't any flexibility to make the localized decisions like the examples you provided, makes a lot of sense.

  8. Sorry those appeared backwards! Read the bottom one first.

  9. Hi Silas - We are not proposing the "big" money items at the local table...salary and benefits. Although there is a case to be made by Boards that these should be. In a remote District a Board might want higher salaries to attract teachers. Salaries are not harmonized right now - they vary quite a bit from district to district. Nor are benefits.

    The equity piece is dealt with through the funding envelope - it needs to be allocated in an equitable fashion (eg. per FTE student). My point about funding was not that I want local taxation back, just that the general model has been to strip Boards of their powers. I agree with you that equitable distribution is essential with respect to the funding. In fact, many of the current grant structures (e.g. Community Link) and the funding provided by International students and parent fundraising still create considerable inequity in the funding available to Boards and schools.

    The funding model was originally changed for equity reasons (after the Cameron Commission in the late 40's). But other parts of the governance model that have changed are about stripping Boards of their relevance, and bargaining is one of them.

    Victoria negotiated porting of sick leave way back in the 90's locally. No need to do this provincially. And many of us don't like portability of seniority here!

    Many of the items we want to bargain are not even cost items. Of our thirty odd priorities less than half are money items and many of the money items are small money items.

    For example, we would like to increase the allotment of PD funds to teachers. We currently receive $87 per year. Meanwhile, administrators get close to $1000. If there has been room in the budget to increase administrator PD funds, why not teacher? Doubling our PD funds would cost the District less than $100,000 - a small money item in a $170 million budget. Or why not redistribute that same funding equitably to all educators? We would like language defining health and safety committees - no cost. A parental complaint process - no cost. I could go on.

    In fact, the costs to Board arise when these issues are not dealt with. They end up as grievances and the money goes to lawyers and arbitrators. Our Board is spending close to half a million dollars a year in litigation with us, when they should be just bargaining with us to develop long term solutions to these local problems.

  10. Hi Tara,

    Your earlier connection of local taxation to local bargaining is apt. Without local taxation trustees lost autonomy in many areas, but as I said before from a provincial perspective it created some necessary equity for students. When I look at only my district and my position, the more autonomy the better; provincially, though, there is some equity for both students and employees that can be achieved through some centralization.

    I've heard stories from the glory days of local bargaining in the 70s and 80s and from the employer's side taxation somewhat drove the whole exercise. Sometimes proposals would need to be costed out by how much taxes would need to be raised. But without this notion/utility as part of the formula, those glory days just aren't so romantic anymore. A lot of the control is going to be provincial anyway, so having 60+ provincial tables going may not be the best use of our local resources (your local as well as your district). [And I do understand your cited envelope model--though governance for Ontario boards is structured in a way that they have complementary autonomy and independence in other areas, too, compared to us, so I'm not sure it could work so well here.]

    But you're absolutely right that this situation has come about as a result of lessened autonomy -- but that issue isn't going to get solved within the current structure. That would need to come from outside, by whom we elect and influence as MLAs. That is an entirely different process and chances are that trustees and teachers have a lot in common regarding what they'd like to see happen provincially (simply more support for public education, for starters).

    On a quick count, my local CA has about 106 articles, about 35 of which are provincial. PD funds are already local are they not? Same with health & safety? I don't believe we have a complaint process in our CA, but that surely isn't a provincial item. So if these items are already on the local table, is BCTF support for local bargaining actually indicative of dissatisfaction with *LOCAL* bargaining as it stands? Maybe there is a more effective way of addressing this underlying concern than expanding local bargaining, which seems counterintuitive?


  11. Not that I can speak for the BCTF, but as a local President I can say that we are frustrated both by how little is at the local table (pd funds are not at the local table, nor are stipends for committees, nor are parental complaints - have a look at Appendix 1 and 2 of the LOU #1 in your teacher collective agreement) and also that every time we try to have local negotiations we are told "BCPSEA told us not to". It is like trying to negotiate with the people who are not really in charge.

    I hope there will be support from Trustees for increased local bargaining because I think we both have things to gain.

  12. All the more reason for a BCTF-BCPSEA discussion on the split, as our working document (at least in SD#46) is unclear. Appendix 1 & 2 do not line up with other local/provincial designations in our document. However "Health and Safety Committee" is consistently designated local.

    The "BCPSEA told us not to" phenomenon is troubling, as we can probably both agree that it doesn't sound much like real local bargaining. Neither does "BCTF head office told us not to," but I will acknowledge that boards seem to fall back on that former excuse a bit too much.

    But with more local bargining, you'd just hear it FAR MORE, and BCPSEA would be busier than ever. The biggest reason for "BCPSEA told us not to" is that districts don't have enough resources to handle the current assignment of support staff and limited teacher bargaining. Many of us lean heavily on BCPSEA's advice to the point where I'm sure it almost seems as though BCPSEA is directing local bargaining, which should not be happening. But boards have made it clear to BCPSEA that we can't all handle more local bargaining, and in fact the more that can be dealt with at the provincial table, the better.

    That said, boards would undoubtedly be willing to listen to arguments that some matters would best be handled split up 60 different ways because of varying unique circumstances across the province; as you've pointed out before, this is really what board governance of education in BC is all about.

    A discussion about how and why some matters could reasonably be sent to local tables could conceivably be a way to "increase local bargaining" as you're hoping for. Hopefully such a discussion will be the next step.

  13. Wow. I stumbled across this blog while doing research and the conversation reflects the reason I left BC politics/schools. Teachers want more money and do less, and use the "it's for the children" bleeding heart card.
    Well, teachers are over paid and unreliable. Our daughter is in Vancouver and we have a 2 week spring break. THis is only two months after x-mass break, and only 3 months before summer holidays. We've had to find day care for so called PD days, that oddly coincide with long weekends.
    I'd like to see teachers get a grip on reality and stop and get real work where they are expected to show up 5 days a week and only get a few weeks of holidays a year, not 12 - 14 , and to do it without a pension.
    Teachers have become a leach on th epublic purse, are no longer professional (given up when unionized), and is out of touch with the people who PAY their salaries.

  14. There will come a time (and I hope it's a long way off) where few will step forward to become teachers, and even less to become students.

  15. Hey here's a novel approach, why not bargain in good faith and quit breaking United Nations and BC Laws? The BC Supreme Court just raked BCPSEA and the govt over the coals for all you've done to my profession. Hers a novel idea, why not bargain in good faith without a ministry dictated agenda? Us teachers all read the recent Supreme Court decision, and guess what people? There wont be another legislated agreement (oxymoron) again in this province. Oh and by the way, for the person who thinks this is a cushy do nothing job, when was the last time you taught 32 kids in a room, one of them legally blind, three identified as ADHD, one also ESL all by yourself? You think doing that and everything else my colleagues and I do is easy? Go get your 5.5 years university education, and you get on in there buddy, and relish your starting take home pay of about 2500 a month.... WOOT WOOT. I dare ya. Its easy to sit on the sidelines and bash teacher isn't it? WHy not, the government does it? How much time have you spent volunteering and helping in your children's schools over the past 5 years? Something everyone needs to consider here, from Wisconsin through to BC, is 70 percent of us whom teach your kids are getting ready to retire in the next 7 years. Hows teacher training and enrollment doing at the BC universities? got lots of potential replacements there now? You better. Do you even care about quality education and our future as a society? Get real, who would go into teaching when you cant even afford to live in Vancouver or the Valley on what a teacher makes. Get real people.

    Ps...... I can see the 18th green from my living room window, and you shall reap what you sow, so good luck with all this. Im one of the lucky ones getting out of the profession in the next three years. Ill be greeting you at Walmart and playing golf soon. I cant wait to be done with all this garbage. Thanks for ruining the whole concept of being a teacher for many of us, you gutted my passion, made it just a job, and when I complained to my MLA, he told me to find another job. So I did, I quit doing extra curricular ( stuff we do for free) and started my own company and took my skills elsewhere after 3:15 pm. Now you the public, have to pay for what I can offer, outside of the school I work in. Thanks for the advice Mr. MLA, now I can sit on the other side of the fence and just laugh at all the hypocrisy, lying, and cheating being modeled openly for all in society to learn from. Well done.

    Cheers : )

  16. I am very curious about the costs & salaries at BCPSEA. I can't find anything online about what people--from the "CEO" down to the rank & file at BCPSEA are paid. All I could find when I searched salaries & BCPSEA were teachers' salaries.

    How much are BC taxpayers paying out annually to this organization?

    I'd really like to know.

    A supporter of public education & democracy.

  17. I too am very curious as to the compensation packages of all employees at BCPSEA and very curious as to why I can't find this information. They are 'ranked' as one of BC's 'best' employers so it goes without saying that the public should know why.

    The only firm piece of data I can find is that they cover 100% of employee benefits. Perhaps passing on what makes them 'best' to all those they bargain with would be a good place to start on the road to great.