Can The Government And The Teachers Union Get Along?
Posted October 4, 2019
In 2015, the Liberal government issued an ambitious plan for improving our schools. Of particular importance were the recommendations for changes to be negotiated with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU). There have been many bends in the road since then.
The plan document promised that there would be annual reports about progress toward its goals. In practice, only one such report was done.
Job action commenced by the union in late 2016—ostensibly about working conditions but really about money—disrupted whatever progress was being made.
There were real issues around classroom conditions and a Council to improve them was established. The 14 teacher participants were chosen by the province from among 800 applicants, and the union was invited to co-chair.
The Council’s recommendations, together with an expert report on Inclusive Education, pointed to a way toward progress.
In early 2018, a further report by Consultant Avis Glaze reiterated several 2015 recommendations concerning relationships with the NSTU.
The union misplayed its hand. In a huff, it resigned from the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. Tellingly, the participating teachers did not.
With new union leadership, relationships have shown some signs of improvement. Here is what has happened on some key issues.
- Principals and other management to be removed from NSTU: This has happened. Principals and administrators who have greater supervisory responsibilities than a department head are now members of the Public School Administrators Association of Nova Scotia, which is not a union. They were all given the option of returning to teaching roles within the union. Few opted for that.
- Eliminate school boards while establishing school advisory councils and a provincial advisory council: This has been implemented after considerable angst from school board members, and has allowed for province-wide implementation of other needed reforms.
- New policy on inclusive education: The challenges under the prior regimes (each school board had its own process) were a big source of teacher dissatisfaction leading up to the job action in 2016.
The new policy was based on an expert report and considerable input from teachers. It includes the addition of 364 inclusive education specialists at a substantial annual cost of $30 million. Let’s hope it works.
- Creation of a robust system for teacher performance management: Not much has happened since this goal was announced in 2015. Some useful work has been done on teaching standards but performance appraisals against those standards are just approaching the pilot project stage.
Appraisal programs for principals and other leaders who are to assess teachers have not yet been planned. This feels like it is in the wrong order-leaders should be assessed first.
There is far more to performance management than an appraisal system. Lots of work to be done here.
- Linking of teacher assignment directly to credentials and experience: A kerfuffle in 2014 involved Drake University online courses for coaches. Any teacher could complete the course and earn a handsome salary increase of $5,000 to $8,000 whether or not they ever did any coaching.
Some 500 teachers signed up. That particular course has been taken off the approved courses list, but the problem remains.
If a teacher takes an approved course that is relevant to what she wants to teach she will get the raise whether or not she is assigned to teach that subject. She may be prevented from doing so because a less qualified teacher with more seniority is currently teaching it.
There is plenty of waste here.
- Two useful changes not on the list: A new extra-curricular policy allows registered volunteers to lead arts and sports programs.
Previously the leadership had to be a union member working for a school board. This should make the extra-curricular activities less vulnerable to job action by the union.
Schools Plus is being implemented. It promotes the use of school facilities by students, families, and the community through social work, health, justice, recreation, and mental health services offered at the school site.
Early years centres, family resource centres, and youth health centres can be located within schools.
- Create a self-regulating College of Educators: The province agreed with a union request to defer this and is working with the union on the management of professional standards. It is great if they can get along but sooner or later the union is likely to come into conflict with its primary duty to represent its members.
- The elephant in the room: Neither in the 2015 plan nor the Glaze report, but far more important than any of the above is the state of the Teachers’ Pension Plan.
It has a deficit of $1.62 billion dollars, more than $27,000 per active teacher, who are outnumbered by those receiving benefits. This has been a problem for more than a decade.
The responsibility for that deficit is equally divided between the province and the teachers. It is a disgrace that the union and the government have failed so far to address the issue.
If they don’t, it will continue to worsen. Young teachers are already overpaying for the benefits they will receive. It is urgent that current bargaining results in a solution, and to be at all equitable it will have to touch retirees as well as active members.
The government and NSTU are in negotiations now. Both teachers and other taxpayers should pay close attention to what they accomplish.
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