Education Minister Don McRae has backed off a request that school boards find savings to cover the cost of anticipated wage increases for support staff.
Faced with an outcry from school trustees, McRae sent board chairpersons a letter this week saying he understands money is tight and that the government has no plans to press the issue.
“You have indicated to me quite clearly that in light of budget uncertainties and the timing of district budget processes that savings cannot be generated without either reducing service levels or transferring costs to the public,” he said.
McRae said he would pass that information along to Finance Minister Mike de Jong, adding that the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association would be given a bargaining mandate that “respects these budgetary constraints.”
“I expect that the minister will direct that any improvements to support staff wages and benefits be achieved through offsetting savings found within the collective agreement,” McRae said. “There must not be any incremental cost to boards or the province as a result of collective agreements.”
McRae sent all boards a letter in early December asking them to find ways to cover 1.5 per cent wage hikes for support staff this year and next under the government’s co-operative gains mandate.
The mandate requires employers to find savings within existing budgets to pay for modest wage increases.
Saanich board chairman Wayne Hunter said it’s unclear where the change leaves boards, which have made clear that they have nowhere left to find savings. The school district would have had to come up with $200,000 this year and another $400,000 next year.
“I mean, [McRae] has to find the money from somewhere,” Hunter said. “There’s no reason our employees shouldn’t get the same … percentage [increase] as other public servants. So we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Victoria board chairwoman Peg Orcherton, who was among the first to reject McRae’s request, criticized the government’s mixed messages.
On the one hand, she said, “the minister is saying you’ll have to find any increases within the [bargaining] process” for support staff.
Yet one day after his letter was sent, McRae and Premier Christy Clark, in advance of bargaining, proposed a 10-year deal for teachers that would index their salaries against wage increases elsewhere in the public sector. No mention was made of the co-operative gains mandate.
“I don’t know what the government is doing, but certainly they’re not communicating effectively,” Orcherton said. “Nobody is communicating effectively with school boards.”
“At this point, we’re just writing lists of questions, and we don’t have answers, which is awful, because we’re going into a heavy [budgeting] time of the year.”
Michael McEvoy, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, met with McRae and said the minister apologized for the way his initial request to boards was handled.
“It was not his intention to impose that [savings] program on school boards across the province, which was obviously very important to us,” said McEvoy, a Greater Victoria school trustee.
He said McRae also committed to working closely with the trustees association to chart a course forward.
© Copyright 2013