A New Future for Teachers and Students

It’s time to try something different. 

As Saskatchewan’s 13,500 professional educators enter into the next round of provincial collective bargaining, that’s the message that kept surfacing.

Every day, our members feel the consequences of several years of austerity budgets. Despite the spin and the political posturing, several key facts can’t be ignored. The first is that per-student operating funding for education remains well below where it was in 2016. This has occurred during a period of enrolment increases, much higher expectations and students who are presenting themselves in the classroom with far more intense and challenging needs. 

If you travel across Saskatchewan and talk with teachers, their message is the same. They feel like they’re drowning. They feel like they can’t do their jobs. Some say they entered the teaching profession in order to make a difference. And that’s something teachers are finding increasingly difficult to do. 

This anecdotal sense is reinforced by our traditional pre-bargaining survey. Historically, one main issue dominates. This makes it relatively easy for the Teachers’ Bargaining Committee to translate the will of the membership into a coherent set of bargaining positions. 

This time, things are different. Yes, as always, teachers are looking for fair compensation and for a wage package that makes up for the ground lost through inflation following the arbitration settlement released September 7, 2018. 

However, of equal significance to teachers is the requirement that their working conditions – and by extension, the learning conditions of their students – are in dire need of attention. Normally, this is not something that is addressed during the course of collective bargaining. However, the issue is of such pivotal importance to teachers that it soon became obvious a new approach was required. 

Class size and classroom composition are of such crucial importance to the teaching profession they must be addressed at the bargaining table. 

Change has not been limited to the concerns and challenges facing the teaching profession in Saskatchewan. The relationships between major players in the education sector are also in an unprecedented period of flux. As STF Executive Director Randy Schmaltz stated in his address to the 2019 Annual Meeting of Council, long-standing relationships of trust, consensus and predictability have been shattered. The system, as Schmaltz said, is broken. Traditional relationships have been torn apart. 

Much of this is due to the significant alterations made to the education funding system that were introduced in the March 2009 provincial budget. School boards were stripped of their authority to set taxes. They are no longer free to set their own mil rates, articulate areas of priority or concern and raise funds to cover emerging priorities. With a few exceptions, money is now channeled through the province’s General Revenue Fund.

This seemingly esoteric and insignificant policy change has had a profound effect on education in our province. Control has been centralized. Important local decisions about the future of education are now highly centralized. Authority, once widely distributed, is held in the hands of a few who are significantly removed from classrooms. 

It’s important that teachers be heard when it comes to identifying the needs of their students. When the door closes, classroom teachers are in the best position to determine what each student requires. Teachers must have room to exercise their professional autonomy. The best way to help teachers meaningfully exercise their professional judgment is through actions at the bargaining table.

How this round of bargaining will be different. 

Previous rounds of provincial collective bargaining have exhibited the hallmarks of a standard industrial relations model. The parties met for an initial set of discussions. Norms were established that defined the scope and style of future discussions. Some of these time-honoured norms included statements like “nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to,” allowing for significant bartering or give-and-take until the very last minute. Another traditional norm was secrecy. Bargaining was judged to be a private affair, with no details of intermediate positions divulged as the talks progressed. 

The first change many STF members will note in this round is a new and unique commitment to transparency. The provincial collective bargaining team will provide STF members and the general public with regular updates on the status of bargaining plus the rate of progress or lack thereof. 

This is being done for one simple reason: so that teachers can inform parents and other interested parties about the significance of the issues facing education in Saskatchewan and the progress being made towards their resolution. 

Tackling the problems associated with class size and classroom composition will not be easy. It will be time consuming. It will be expensive. Tackling these issues will also require a degree of focused commitment that has been notably absent from government in recent years. 

Without support from parents and the public, these issues will not be resolved. 

The second departure from past bargaining practice will be the narrow and focused quality of our negotiating package. In more traditional bargaining processes, both sides present numerous demands, fully expecting many of them will drop off during the back and forth of standard collective bargaining. 

This time, the STF will be bargaining transparently. Our efforts depend to a significant degree on the level of public support we can gain and retain. The teachers’ bargaining position will always seem reasonable because they will be reasonable. You will not see 20, 30 or 40 items on our list. Our bargaining proposals will be deliberately tight and focused. 

The third significant change STF members will notice in this round of provincial collective bargaining will likely be a rapid escalation of intensity. Change in any structured or formal relationship creates fear and uncertainty. In past rounds of bargaining, we’ve seen government advertising designed to demonize teachers as greedy and uncaring. 

As we head towards the October 2020 provincial general election, the pressure to resolve our issues will become more intense. It will become increasingly important for teachers to stand together and not back down. 

Over the past few years, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation has deliberately positioned itself as the voice of publicly funded public education in our province. We firmly believe that regardless of where they live, regardless of their economic circumstances, regardless of the physical or cognitive challenges a student may face, that student deserves a high-quality education delivered by a trained professional. 

This gets expensive in a province as vast as ours. However, we’ve fallen into a trap in Saskatchewan. Education spending is often seen as a road block to a balanced budget – a number that must be reduced at all cost.

We’re paying the price for this approach. Students and teachers are suffering the consequences of failing to see education for what it is – a key investment in our future. 

This current round of collective bargaining, at its core, is our commitment to a new future for teachers and students.