School board rejections may create superboard

Alberta’s Education Minister, Jeff Johnson, must be wondering what to do now.

Stephen Murgatroyd, Guest Columnist

Alberta’s Education Minister, Jeff Johnson, must be wondering what to do now. Having secured the agreement of the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) to a deal that has some elements they were seeking — a focus on conditions of practice in response to a clear set of data that shows that teacher work-loads are “out of whack” with any reasonable expectation of work/life balance and unsuited to the kind of curriculum transformation needed — but not others, he now is facing a rebellion by school boards.

Edmonton Public and Calgary Public, which are the actual employers of teachers (the government is the partial paymasters), have rejected the deal. Other school boards are likely to follow. Alberta has 62 school boards (in itself a strange thing for a population of 3.7 million), all of whom need to say “yes” to the deal for the deal to stick.

It is also not clear what the teachers will do. The ATA has recommended acceptance but the membership is now voting on the deal and many suspect that the vote will be close.

How did we get here?

Over a year ago former education minister Dave Hancock, had the basic deal in place that would have settled this before the last election. There was a tentative deal in place with the ATA, Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) and the government. He took it to caucus but the majority party said no. Two education ministers later, any prospect of a deal with teachers fell apart if it involved the ASBA. The ATA walked away from the tripartite talks.

Johnson then offered the teachers a deal that the ATA rejected, leaving the ASBA out of the negotiations. (The ASBA has no legal standing from a bargaining point of view).

He then drafted a bill that required teachers to accept a deal, thereby overriding the bargaining process and current employment contracts. Looking at this ministerial dictatorship and leadership by fiat, the ATA’s leadership determined to fight another day with a playing field they understood and, with intelligent ministerial leadership, could manage. They backed off, approached the minister and struck a deal.

Part of the deal seeks to resolve the workload issue through an “exceptions committee” to review teacher concerns about workload. The tentative contract determines that a teacher’s classroom time will be capped at 907 hours. In a variety of provisions, teachers concerned about their workload can file a concern and an exceptions committee will determine whether or not the teacher has a case. Workloads and conditions of practice, together with a need for investment in professional development aimed at making the transformation of Alberta schools as envisaged in Inspiring Education possible, were the key issues from the ATA’s point of view. To see why, look at the study by Linda Duxbury of teacher workloads published recently.

The Calgary Public Board rejection seems to take offence at the idea that teachers should be professionally responsible for the management of their practice. Making extensive use of the term “visionary leaders,” by which they mean management, they suggest visionary leaders “know best” and that teachers need to be led, both in terms of their practice and in terms of their professional development. They see substantial “hidden costs” in the operation of the exceptions process, suggesting that they assume they will have a great many of them — which in turn suggests that their visionary leaders care little about the conditions of practice. They also suggest that a great deal of professional development time will be spent by teachers seeking to work on workloads, when in fact that ATA and Calgary teachers in particular want to spend their time on pedagogy, curriculum and innovation. The board’s rejection suggests several disconnects between the profession and its management.

The Edmonton Public Board rejection (the Catholic board has offered a tentative yes) is based on costs, process and the challenge to democracy. Their core argument is that the agreement erodes the power of the employer to determine how its employees work and that it undermines democracy — trustees are elected to make education “fit” with local conditions.

These two rejections open the Pandora’s Box for legislated bargaining and the creation of a provincial superboard for education, with local matters managed by zone leaders. It happened in health care and could happen here. The key advantage of a single employer for teachers at the provincial level is the reduction of the bargaining cycle and the standardization of the basis for employment. The key argument against it is that is destroys the idea that no two schools are the same and that the management of education is best done nearest to the student.

Given the Stalinist instincts of the Redford government, who believe that command and control is the “new black” of management, we should not be surprised if the rejection of the teachers’ contract by school boards has larger consequences. The government is already giving them clear instructions on how to reduce their costs.

Johnson sees himself as CEO of a large, multi-billion dollar corporation (he is ex-Xerox). If the “branches” of the corporation are not falling into line, the first instinct of such leaders is to reorganize the corporation. With a premier seeking to show that she can be tough with unions and determined to be right in both action and ideology, we should not be surprised to see the government take on the boards and change their mandates — the boards owe their entire existence to the provincial government.

We can expect fireworks.



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