A Game of Funds

It’s war and both sides know how to play this game of funds.

Teachers initiate rotating strikes; employers, in turn, plan to lock them out and reduce pay by 10 per cent for the work loss. Media coverage is thick, on-screen blasts and visible displays of protest butt-up against government officials and talking heads. The students, well they collectively fall in behind, awaiting a verdict on when normalcy in the broken system will return.

And the system is indeed broken. If the opportunity to leverage the educational needs of children with increased wage demands exists, there’s something wrong. Worst, there appears no way to shave the billion dollar costs currently associated with the K-12 public school system as the only way forward is to increase and fatten what’s already there.

The government recently pitched a 7.3 per cent wage increase over six years. The B.C. teachers returned with a 13.7 per cent wage increase demand over a four-year period. According to Peter Cameron, the government’s lead negotiator, this would amount to four times more than any other union agreement currently in place.

The government most recently shelled out $4.5 billion to the K-12 system. But aside from economic demands, control and support to manage class size and composition are additional points of contention. These points, while valid, only add to the cost and while teachers’ demands have merit, in the current economic conditions, they aren’t realistic.

It’s the entitlement that strikes me, and without any context or full consideration provided. The teachers—BCTF—point to salary grids that place B.C. in the lower-third within a national pay scale of teachers. If you were to view the document you would note that Category 5 teachers in B.C. make, at minimum, $48,083 (in Vancouver), up to a maximum of $74,535. Category 6 teachers would start at $52,823 (in Vancouver) and top out at $81,488. Not too shabby.

But, what locations round out the top four? Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yellowknife and Yukon, respectively. Lets ponder why? Beauty comes at a price. B.C. is a nice place to hunker down in, especially in the summer so this makes the job market that much more attractive for teachers than the aforementioned arctic locales.

Further down the list at the fifth, sixth and seventh spots are three Alberta cities with wages in the $61,000 range. This is a critical point of comparison made by teachers and the BCTF, but without any context.

Alberta, even with its vast oil resources, ran a deficit for six consecutive years only just reporting a consolidated $1.1 billion surplus for this year. And even still, out of control spending on programs and public sector compensation (Read: Fraser Institute Report), accompanied by the recent bitumen bubble, has put the West’s wealthiest province into an accumulated $14.5 billion debt, and critics fear this hole will only deepen by 2017. In such an economic environment, heavy cutbacks will  ensue.

Flip to B.C. and the situation isn’t any prettier, in fact it’s worse. According to the B.C. Fiscal and Debt Summary for 2014/15 to 2016/17, the projected provincial debt is expect to rise to $68.9 billion. Granted the same document states the rate of growth on the debt is projected to decline, the debt load is daunting to think, especially as a young taxpayer.

So how is there room for a nearly 14 per cent wage increase to teachers, plus additional support staff and proposed class size reductions (which will certainly result in more teachers being employed)? There isn’t, and the BCTF know this, or ought to. Quite simply, the aim eye, land on the clouds approach is unrealistic and comes off as greedy.

Furthermore, you cannot point to provincial sphere’s of fiscal responsibility and demand similar benefits. Provincial economies function and react differently. The strength of provincial budgets depends on a myriad of factors, some common, others unique. In short, it’s difficult to have a uniform pay scale in a federalist country, so vast and varied.

Another condition high on the BCTF agenda, especially with the recent ruling, is class size. There’s no question reduced class sizes will result in a better, more manageable, environment for teachers and for some students. But aside from the logistical nightmare of creating additional space and staff, there is a paradox to this argument that is bothersome.

Teachers are often first to state that a student’s educational outcome is indeterminate. Extraneous factors such as home life, personal learning disabilities, motivation, character are just some examples of challenges that can affect a student’s ability to achieve academic success. No one can disagree with this.

Teachers thus argue in favour of a professional growth model over punitive measures based on student success. So if this is the case, then a reduction in class size shouldn’t really matter. Some students will succeed and others still won’t—the subjectivity of life.

What’s clear is the teachers strive for a better working environment along with a 13.7 per cent wage increase and additional support for those oddly composited classes. Even meeting these demands in the middle would still place a greater burden on an increasing debt-load and the bitter distaste from all of this isn’t just from the spin coming from both ends, but that any sort of economic gain to the public union is footed by society’s hard-earned dollars. And the people on the other side of the negotiating table, well, it’s no different there. That’s what’s most annoying about this seemingly relentless dispute. It’s a game of funds and the taxpayers are made to play and pick sides when in the end it’s taxpayer money on the line.

Brandon Kostinuk
Brandon graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.A. in comparative history and a political science minor. After a two-year stint as a compliance researcher at a private financial firm, he moved on to an accelerated journalism program at Langara College. Brandon currently freelances, sharing time at a local startup magazine and content writing.