Wednesday, August 31, 2011

$$$ for senior bureaucrats, but not a penny for public education

The news today about the salaries, bonuses and severance packages for senior BC government bureaucrats was a slap in the face for British Colombians faced with higher taxes, higher ferry fares, higher Hydro bills and lower wages.

While the government has steadfastly insisted that public sector workers who are not in management must take a zero salary increase for two years, apparently this did not apply to senior levels in government.

David Hahn, CEO of BC Ferries, earned over $1 million this year with a sizable bonus. While BC residents spent more than ever on ferry fares, he suffered no "austerity".

The CEO of Powerex earned over $1 million, including a $540,000 bonus.

As reported in today's Times Colonist by Les Layne:

"Regular readers will recognize Kevin Mahoney from rants in this space back in 2008. He was the CEO of B.C. Rail who continued to make $500,000 a year even after the railway was reduced to just a spur line and the number of employees cut to about 30.

The corporation didn't meet any of its targets in selling its industrial real estate portfolio, but Mahoney still managed to collect six-figure bonuses.

He made his last appearance on the earners list this year, clocking in at $500,000, but only because of a $392,000 severance payout that came after the top-heavy remnants of B.C. Rail were finally wound down in 2010."

(Read more:

The same day, Minister of Education George Abbott tells the media: "There is nothing in our world that will take us away from a net zero mandate".

What Abbott isn't saying is that the mandate only really applies to *some* public sector workers - notably those who do NOT earn six figure salaries to start with.

The "net zero" has nothing to do with our economy or fiscal situation. It has everything to do with priorities. This government wants ordinary working people to pay more and more and more.

Our version of BC Liberal austerity came in the form of the $6 training wage, increases to fees for public services like the ferries, no wage increases for public sector workers, and of course the HST.

But those on the high end, in the top 5% of income earners in this province, have been showered with bonuses.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Highest funding ever? Then why the "net zero" mandate?

Highest funding ever?

Another misleading communique from the BC Liberals - "Education by the Numbers" - was released just in time for school start up. The "numbers" attempt to show how terrific the funding has been for BC schools under the Liberal government. Hopefully, this propaganda will go just as far as the HST ads. You only need to walk into any school Board and ask a Trustee if funding is indeed "the highest ever" to get a realist answer (have a look at Richmond School Board's "Advocacy" page for some examples of funding letters from Boards to the Ministry:

The Liberals use raw numbers (no inflation adjustment) for per pupil funding to make their claim - a mistake in itself as it fails to address inflation and increased costs (like the HST!) and deals with only one piece of education funding (per pupil amounts). This would be like describing taxes based only on income tax and not including sales tax, wealth tax, corporate tax, and so on. Education funding has many components of which per pupil funding is only one. Moreover, the so called "highest ever" is even more misleading because in 2002, a significant increase in per pupil funding was accompanied by dramatically decreased and in many cases eliminated targeted funding for students with special needs. The total amount "added" to per pupil funding was offset by the elimination of targeted funding. When you look at the overall education budget, the claim of "highest funding ever" is simply not true.

That per pupil number is now going not just to the costs of educating that one student, but also for the educational assistants, the learning assistant teachers, the support for learning disabled children, and so on. In actuality, a smaller amount is now left over for the basic per pupil costs than we have seen in two decades.

Moreover, special education, which no longer receives targeted funding, has been devastated under this scheme. It is typical for an autistic child to have support from an educational assistant for only half of their school day. Yet their autism is there 24/7. A typical middle school child in Victoria who requires learning assistance gets an unbelievable 18 minutes per week. No wonder parents are using private services after school hours in droves. The public system is no longer providing what their children need.

In 2001, education funding as a percentage of our budget expenditures was over 19%. Today it is 15%. This is a fair measure of the value this government has placed on public education - a decrease in funding by one quarter. It compares apples to apples - total funding in real dollars (e.g. inflation accounted for). Another fair number is the percent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product, or our total generated wealth) - from 3.7% of GDP to 3.2% of GDP.

Then why the "net zero"?

The funding claim was no surprise - we have heard it all before. But I was taken aback that they chose this moment in time to "re-release" the mis-leading data. After all, all we hear at the bargaining table and in the media is the "mandate" and the government's need to lower "costs".


Highest funding ever but 12,000 oversize classes and growing every year?
Highest funding ever but they cannot restore $275 million for class size/composition?
Highest funding ever but teacher salaries drop to 8th from 3rd in Canada?
Highest funding ever but a "net zero" mandate?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Arbitrator rules on local bargaining allowed for BC teachers

An arbitrator has answered five questions in relation to what and how BC teachers can bargain at the local and provincial levels under the Public Education Labour Relations Act (PELRA).

BC teachers are seeking to place more items at the local tables, where local teachers' associations can meet with school Trustees to seek solutions that make sense for their districts.

Local bargaining has been resisted at levels by the BC government, the employers association (BCPSEA) and many local school Boards.

The ruling puts to rest the notion, claimed by BCPSEA, that any item with any "cost" attached cannot be negotiated locally. This would include practically everything, as many items may have minor or nominal costs. The ruling instead says that the only items that MUST be provincial are those with a cost and that are part of the four items specifically listed in the legislation - salaries, paid leaves, hours of work and benefits. All other items, even if there is a cost attached, could be negotiated locally if the parties so decide.

Hopefully this ruling will open the door to more fruitful discussions at the provincial table about changing the split of local/provincial issues. This has been one of the roadblocks to reaching an agreement. It has also prevented meaningful discussions at local tables.

In Victoria, as just one example, the local Board has refused to discuss some issues currently designated as "local" because they have claimed there might be some small cost associated with them. The ruling should cause Boards to reevaluate this position and meet with local teacher associations in good faith to reach agreement on the many local issues that have not been discussed in over 18 years.

The arbitrator's decision is available here:

Friday, August 26, 2011

New school year, another 12,000 overcrowded classes

As we get ready to return to school, much attention has been focused on the "teach only" campaign of BC teachers.

But as far as students are concerned, more significant will be the more than 12,000 oversize classes that we can expect, give the government's refusal to reinstate $275 million in lost funding. This funding was cut in 2002 when the BC government stripped teacher collective agreements of limitations on class sizes and class composition (the number of students in each class with special needs designations). (See class size data here:

Even after the teachers strike in 2005 and the introduction of some limitations in the School Act, the government has failed to meet it's own stated limits.

Year after year, since 2005, the number of classes exceeding the School Act limits has grown. Last year it was over 12,000 across BC.

This means there are 12,000 classes with either more than 30 students or with more than 3 students who require an Individual Education Plan (or both).

Talk to any teacher who has been assigned an overcrowded class and you will begin to understand the impact on student learning.

Here is the composition of just one Victoria class that was outside the limits a few years ago:

"My class of 29 students included:
Five children with standard IEP’s (Individual Education Plans). Two children had LD (learning disability) designations. One student had a PDD-NOS (pervasive development disorder - not otherwise specified) designation including neuro-developmental difficulties and immaturities, MID (mild intellectual disability), autistic type behaviours and had had an IBI (intensive behaviour intervention) designation in the past. Another student had been diagnosed with PDCH (physical disability/chronic health), Aspergers, Pervasive Developmental Disorder. The fifth designated child had autism, Tourettes, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and LD. Four additional students had “In-school” IEP’s. These included one student who was two years below grade level, was on a modified program for language arts and mathematics and was waitlisted for an Ed-Psych assessment. Another student had been referred for an Ed-Psych assessment and was barely functioning in the class. He was living in a foster home and was seriously “at risk”. A third student “minimally met” in all areas of the curriculum, was easily distracted and had difficulty beginning and completing tasks. The fourth student had received occupational therapy and instruction from the Learning Disabilities Association and was dysgraphic. This same student was diagnosed with autism the following year. An additional two students had serious emotional concerns."

This teacher was rightly concerned about his ability to meet every student's learning needs. There are only so many hours in the day and one teacher simply cannot meet such diverse needs effectively in the time available.

When teachers begin their "teach only" action, they will be spending more time with their students, and less with Administrators. More at IEP meetings, and less at staff meetings. More planning and assessing and less doing formal reports.

The great tragedy this fall is that the BC government has failed to listen to teachers and restore the funding that has been stolen from our classrooms.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Teacher bargaining resumes at provincial table

Bargaining resumed today between the BCTF bargaining team and BCPSEA (the bargaining agent for the provincial government and school boards).

Both sides have indicated a wish to reach a settlement before the start of school. But the so-called "net zero" mandate and major concessions tabled by BCPSEA are a formidable stumbling block. The BCTF team has repeatedly indicated that BCPSEA needs a revised mandate to enable negotiations to move forward.

Three major issues are outstanding for teachers this fall: salary & benefits, class size and composition and local bargaining.

Class size & Composition

After a successful court decision that determined the elimination of bargaining over class sizes and class composition was unconstitutional, teachers are shocked that there will be no improvement in classroom conditions this year and that the government is still refusing to meet it's previous class size commitments even though the law will officially change as of April 14, 2012 - mid school year.

The government took $275 million from classrooms in 2002 and students and teachers are paying the price with overcrowded classrooms and a desperate lack of specialty teachers and services for students with special needs.

Salary & Benefits

BC teachers are now the lowest paid in western Canada. This was the conclusion of an arbitrated settlement to the Saskatchewan teachers dispute. That independent arbitrator has suggested both cost of living and market adjustments for Saskatchewan teachers to bring up to the western Canadian average.

BC teachers are asking for wage parity with Alberta and Ontario, where cost of living and housing prices more closely resemble those of many BC teachers.

BCPSEA has offered no wage increases. It proposes two years of "zero" salary increases. At current levels of inflation, this would result in lower purchasing ability and put BC teachers even further behind nationally. BC teachers
were 8th among all provinces and territories in 2011 and will fall lower in rank as of this September.

Local bargaining

Teachers want to engage in more joint decisions with locally elected school boards. Local issues are best resolved when local teacher associations meet directly with locally elected Trustees. A "one size fits all" contract simply does not make sense to ensure Districts and schools can provide educational services that make sense for their communities and their students. It is ironic that the government program of "personalized learning" is supposed to take place within a provincial bargaining model.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

4 lessons from the long (hot?) summer

Everyone seems to be writing top ten lists these I'll try a top four...

1. Austerity is not the answer

Perhaps the most ubiquitous news in the main stream media this summer surrounded the economy. This economic news is always written with assumptions that have nothing to do with the well being of most people. It typically sounds like this: Markets are dropping (or economic indicators are falling), this is unhealthy, we must all do more to ensure deficits are kept under control for the economy to return to "health". Of course "health" in the business section of most daily papers has nothing to do with earning a decent living for ordinary people, but rather profits for those with money to invest in stocks, bonds or other facets of the "market". This creates a completely biased picture of the world economy. It aims at convincing those of us with not so much to begin with that somehow we have to do some "belt tightening" to ensure that "markets" are back in shape (or said another way, to ensure that government debt is not "too high"). What is completely missing from this version of events is the fact that while the market has in fact failed to deliver to millions and millions of people, somehow it is us that should be expected to pay to fix the problems. In the US, this means "restructuring" of medicare and social security (READ reduce benefits and defer benefits until a later age). In Europe this means "austerity" in the form of massive cuts to social programs, government jobs and wages, and infrastructure. In Canada this means cuts to federal spending and further cuts to health care and education at the provincial levels - despite increasing demands/needs.

The "austerity" program is completely misplaced. In fact, cutting back on government spending during a recession is a recipe for prolonging that recession. It contracts the economy, reduces the amount of dollars available for spending (by cutting wages and reducing the numbers of government workers and those receiving unemployment benefits) and thereby reduces the tax revenues available to pay off government debt. The net effect is often a reduction in revenues resulting in an INCREASE in the debt to GDP ratio (rather than the purported reduction used as a rationale for cutting).

Moreover the "austerity" programs are patently unfair. They are a transfer of wealth to the rich from the poor. They are essentially a way to make the poor pay for the debt. If increased revenues are what is needed, the answer is to increase taxes on the wealthy - particularly at a time in history when the gap between the rich and poor has never been greater. There is plenty of wealth in the is that wealth that should be used to bear the burden of "fixing" the economy.

2. Social problems cannot be ignored

Much hay has been made of the London riots. They ought to be a wake up call. When hundreds and thousands of young people feel so despondent, and have so little invested in their local communities, we need to be looking beyond the behaviour and examining why a generation feels so alienated. It is more than simply looking at the cuts and joblessness and how these have impacted a whole layer of young people and their vision of the future - it is about the way our society has increasingly put profit before people. Commercialization, materialism, destruction of the planet. Cameron is right in one way about the "moral" issue - but it is in some sense his morals that are the problem - the morals that place the daily increase in stock market prices above the value of all citizens to a healthy and happy life.

3. We need more politics, not less

The downgrading of the US triple A rating supposedly due to the "bickering" of US politicians should be a warning sign that there is growing discontent amongst the moneyed classes for democratic institutions. I found it shocking that so many commentators in the main stream press blamed legitimate and necessary democratic discussion and actions as somehow "disruptive" to "fixing" the economy. This happened not only with reference to the US debt ceiling, but also with Greece and other parts of Europe where the citizens are speaking up loudly to oppose more and more severe austerity programs. Real democracy means accepting that the citizenry have a legitimate place to contest the actions of governments. Growing awareness in Europe that government actions have more to do with "who" will pay is testing the boundaries of liberal democracies. Even the HST referendum in BC is a small scale example of the people putting democracy to the test.

4. Defending social services is more critical than ever

In the midst of the fear mongering related to a "double dip" recession or the demographic challenges of the aging baby boomers, defending our social programs is more critical then ever. It was interesting to see how Germany is better able to deal with a contracting workforce because of their amazing employment insurance programs which make employers pay to keep a pool of money to retain workers at part time employment in times of contraction. This is in stark contrast to the massively increasing unemployment rolls in the US. Good social programs are essential to the well being of everyone and should be safeguarded and enhanced. Now is exactly the wrong time to eliminate or reduce them and the rationale that "the money isn't there" is just bogus. The money has been diverted into corporate profits and is enriching a very few at the expense of the many. Even the American "tea party"-ers recognize a good thing when they have it - so comes the ironic slogan "keep your government hands off my medicare".