NDP ‘concerned’ that no progress made in education conciliation talks

STF president says province’s negotiators didn’t have authority to make decisions

Ryan Meili speaks at an education town hall held in Prince Albert on Oct. 28, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

NDP education critic Carla Beck says she’s growing “increasingly concerned” with a perceived lack of progress between the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF) and the provincial government as they negotiate a new contract.

On Friday the STF released a statement saying that four days of conciliation had failed and that the two sides were nowhere near a deal. The province, though, in a statement of its own, said that progress had been made towards coming to an agreement.

“I’d really like to see the two sides get a deal at the bargaining table,” Beck said. “But there’s such reluctance on the part of the ministry, it would seem, to even discuss issues of class size and composition in a meaningful way. It’s really disappointing.”

Class size and composition have been a sticking point for some time as negotiations have continued. Education Minister Gordon Wyant has promised to review the issue outside of the bargaining process, but the STF has wanted to work it into the collective agreement to give any changes some teeth.

“What I’m suggesting is we set up a provincial table and start having conversations about this, and see what we can do jointly … to start developing a framework for how to deal with a very complex issue,” Education Minister Gord Wyant said, according to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

The issue of class size and complexity also came up in the NDP’s own education survey. Beck was in Prince Albert for a town hall in late October to discuss the survey and meet with teachers to hear what they had to say.

During that town hall, teachers said they support the inclusive model, but that supports hadn’t kept up.

 “Our deaf students no longer have a sign teacher,” one teacher said. “We had a kid that did not know her ABCs. But you want them to be part of the classroom. It takes a lot of work just to get that child at a Grade 1 reading level. That’s the problem. We don’t have these supports. Of course, a kid is going to be frustrated and the teacher is going to be frustrated when they don’t have the supports in the classroom.”

The teacher continued.

“What’s going to happen with all of these kids that don’t have any of these skills? What are they going to do after high school? We haven’t trained them. That’s my fear.”

Another said having so many high-needs students in their classroom meant that higher-achieving students weren’t able to receive any enrichment.

“This is something we are hearing consistently, that teachers are concerned with their teaching conditions,” Beck said.

“Teachers are concerned with the state of education in our province. They want the government to hear and understand that lass size and composition is an important issue.”

Beck said it’s “extraordinary” that despite wages not keeping up with inflation, more teachers are concerned about class size and complexion than salary increases.

“Those concerns are right in line with what we’ve been hearing,” Beck said. She also urged the education minister to “stop talking about average class sizes of 18 and more money than ever spent in the sector. Really sit down and listen to the concerns that are coming from the classroom — that are coming from teachers.”

Wyant and premier Scott Moe have often cited the average class size in question period when answering criticism from the NDP. Moe has called the education funding in the 2019 budget the largest single investment ever in education in a year. Wyant has touted that the rural average for class size is 18 and the average in Regina and Saskatoon is 21.

But the NDP has argued that those numbers are just that — averages. Those numbers, they say, would imply that there are class sizes that are much higher and lower than the number Wyant has presented. They compared it to temperature. The average temperature in Saskatchewan is about eight degrees. That doesn’t mean, they’ve said, that you can go outside in the winter without a coat on.

Maze says wage mandates, lack of decision-makers stalling progress

As for how things are progressing at the bargaining table, Maze expressed some frustration at what he saw as inflexible mandates from the provincial government.

“Government is stuck on their wage mandate of zero, two and two” per cent wage increases, he said Friday.

“It’s frustrating. The first indication, though, is that the people at the table really don’t seem to have the ability to conclude a deal at the table. They don’t seem to be have been given the authority to actually negotiate so anything that happens, they have to go away and see if yes, they can agree to something or not. And that just bogs down the process.”

Maze said negotiators from his side have the authority to make deals at the table they will then take away to their members.

Maze’s complaints echo those of another recent high-profile provincial government negotiation.

Union representatives during the Crown strike last year had similar comments, arguing that Crown Corporation representatives didn’t have the authority to make decisions and that they were rigid on their wage mandates.

“We asked the chair across the table from us, do you have control of the financial package and the ability to say ‘yes’ to our tentative agreement, and she said ‘yes,” Unifor 1-S president Dave Kuntz said while speaking in Prince Albert in November.

“We knew she didn’t and shortly after that she found out she didn’t have control of that money.”

The Sask. Party refuted this. They told reporters the Crowns were able to bargain freely.

Beck said there’s “increasing concern” that provincial government wage mandates “don’t address even basic inflation.”

“The prices of everyday goods and utilities continue to rise, and wages simply are not keeping page,” she said.

The province did not answer questions about the bargaining mandate beyond providing the statement expressing that progress had been made and that the negotiating panel looks forward to future negotiations.