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Les Leyne: Education is essential — up to a point

The way it’s supposed to work is, all government spending gets approved by elected officials before the money goes out the door. They divvy the government’s budget into “votes,” with each vote representing a ministry’s budget.

Les Leyne mugshot genericThe way it’s supposed to work is, all government spending gets approved by elected officials before the money goes out the door.

They divvy the government’s budget into “votes,” with each vote representing a ministry’s budget. Each one gets debated and passed in the house, and the money gets spent on the basis that it was scrutinized by elected representatives.

The Education Ministry’s $5.3-billion vote for the year was passed May 1 on the assumption that the money would run the school system.

But there was nothing during debate about the prospect of carving $12 million a day in unspent money due to a teachers’ strike out of the budget and handing it directly to parents.

It raises the question of whether the potential September tactic announced this week is appropriate. It might be only parliamentary purists raising eyebrows at the government’s fallback plan if the strike isn’t settled by next month.

But forking over $40 a day per kid under 13 to make up for the absence of a school system would be a pretty novel use of tax money that was originally dedicated for the school system — in fact, promised to school districts.

No doubt there’s a way around the convention, if it turns out to be a problem. There usually is. If the plan takes effect next month, the government could argue the money can’t be spent as earmarked, because the teachers aren’t working. So it is free to redirect it elsewhere. Or the issue could go to court, which is where the government and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation spend a lot of time in any event.

The B.C. Liberals are acutely conscious of how judges view their negotiating tactics these days, because the appeal of the government’s huge loss to the BCTF is set for this October. The Supreme Court condemned their negotiating strategy and quashed their last legislation to do with teachers — again — in January.

The government desperately needs to win the appeal and is leery of passing another law, after two previous ones have been tossed out of court. Another loss would hand the BCTF a huge win on the expensive learning-conditions issues that are part of the dispute.

Also in play is a novel sort of ju-jitsu strategy the government has adopted.

As explained by Finance Minister Mike de Jong, teachers’ contracts have been legislated so often that the BCTF now fully expects to be ordered back to work after work stoppages. He said past governments have reacted too quickly.

The idea is that the BCTF goes to the wall with contract demands because they know a back-to-work bill will be coming eventually. The expectation becomes a strong part of their strategy.

(That’s why the union had next to nothing in a strike fund.)

This time around, the government is holding off, in a bid to force real negotiations. They’ve been negotiating for 18 months, through two education ministers, two union presidents, a shake-up of the government negotiating side and one election. It’s all been a pointless waste of time, but they’ll take another run at it on Aug. 8.

The announced plan to compensate parents through September if there’s no deal confirms again there will be no back-to-work order at least until October. It gives teachers another paycheque-free month to examine their shrinking bank accounts and watch $12 million a day that could have been in their hands get doled out to parents instead.

It also turns on its head the historic understanding that education is an essential service. It’s that designation that always been used to justify imposing contracts on the BCTF in the past. The government got away with letting most of June go by without imposing a deal because it’s a pretty unproductive month at the best of times.

But holding to that stance at the start of another year makes something unmistakably clear. The B.C. Liberals think the education system is essential only up to a point.

The more essential things are to avoid doing anything that would blow their chances in court this fall, and force the BCTF to accept the fact that the deal has to be negotiated this time.

lleyne@timescolonist.com