15 Pieces of Silver Per Day

What is a quality education for your child worth to you?   This is the question that I have been asking myself this week, multiplied across another 20+ years of students ahead of me.

Like so many of my teaching colleagues here in Nova Scotia, when I first heard that the NSTU had reached a tentative agreement with the government and the work-to-rule / stoppage of all unpaid teacher activity was ending, I was full of hope.

And then I saw the tentative agreement. And my heart sank.

For more than four months, the teachers of Nova Scotia have been pleading for improvements to our classroom conditions. We are over-burdened with data entry demands – many of which students and parents never see or benefit from. Our classes are bursting at the seams; often in classrooms designed for only 2/3 the number of bodies that are there. We are drowning in new initiatives while we are still trying to integrate previous waves of the latest-and-greatest into our daily lives. We are trying to meet the diverse needs of our students – often with little training or support and while waiting months and years for specialist support. Increasing portions of our daily lives are devoted to having to justify every single part of our teaching practice to bureaucrats with no classroom experience,  and not educating students.

To be fair, this cannot be laid only at the feet of the current Liberal government. As many of my colleagues have pointed out in very frank discussion this year, we as teachers have been complicit in this process. Each time a little bit more has been laden onto our shoulders, we have shuffled and shifted and done our best to move forward and do the best we can for our students. But now we are buckling under all of the weight.

We have rejected two tentative agreements which offered the terms near-identical to the financial package imposed in Bill 148 and did nothing to address the needs of the over-burdened classroom teachers and specialists.

The shadow of Bill 148 still looms large. Like the two tentative agreements that came before it, this offer included salary increases that pale in comparison to the rising cost of inflation, leaving me with less spending power each year. This time around, there was a marginal gain: the former contract gave us 3% over four years, only if you take into account a raise scheduled for the very last day of the contract and the latest offer didn’t have such a tricky accounting maneuver.

Our “Service Award” – affectionately referred to as a retirement bonus by the government – would be ended by this contract. It is worth noting that the Service Award has a history which goes back decades, but can be traced to roots as a Deferred Raise Agreement:  instead of paying thousands of teachers a raise for their entire careers, it saved school boards and the province an incredible amount of money to give teachers a one-time payout at upon retirement.  Teachers accepted this in negotiations in lieu of a raise. And later, when various provincial governments helped themselves to some of the pension fund at insanely low interest rates leading to an under-funded pension plan, teachers agreed to give up an indexed pension (which would grow to reflect the rising cost of living) based on an argument that the Service Award would cushion the effects of a pension which will not increase.

It is also worth noting that in other Canadian jurisdictions when similar long service awards have been ended, it is typical that all employees who would qualify at retirement get their pro-rated award paid out when the program is ended. That isn’t what the Nova Scotian government is offering teachers – and like many of my colleagues, I am suspicious that this is because there is a plan to claw back any accrued funds in a future contract.

The proposed contract does include language around a committee to deal with some classroom issues around inclusion.  But this committee cannot include any front-line teachers. And if the three (that’s right, three) members have a dispute and arbitration is involved, there is a cap on how much can be spent. And the Minister of Education has veto power over recommendations. And there’s no guarantee that the money dedicated to this money will be spent making any real impact in the classrooms of Nova Scotia.

In my humble opinion, we don’t need a committee.  We need front-line support. More Educational Program Assistants, the daily heroes who help ensure that inclusion works. More classroom teachers (and therefore lower class sizes) so that ALL students get more individual time and attention from their classroom teachers.

The proposed contract also offers teachers two extra days off each year – which amount to 1% of our contracted yearly teaching time and mirrors the 1% per year of our service award.  Funny thing is, I haven’t spoken to a single front-line teacher who is excited or motivated by these extra two days.

And in recent developments, we are hearing that not only is the government responsible for proposing these two days be added to the contract, they also demanded that the NSTU suspend job action before even bringing this proposed contract to its membership.

Ending Work to Rule was never an act of good faith; it was the result of blackmail. The McNeil government continues to poison the well all the while trying to browbeat teachers into setting precedent for all other Nova Scotian unions by accepting this abuse.

What is a quality education for a Nova Scotian child worth to me?  A hell of a lot more than 15 pieces of silver per day.

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