Taxpayers rejoice! Premier’s beef costs unknown!

In response to a short period of protests and a pretty impressive grassroots mobilization, the Liberals tabled a bill in the House last week that represented a watered-down adoption of the contentious Glaze report.

Now known as Bill 72, the Education Reform Act sees some of the controversial aspects of the report, such as the creation of a College of Teachers, taken off the books. What it somewhat tellingly retains is language around the abolition of locally elected school boards and the removal of principals and vice-principals from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Now, anyone who thinks this had not been part of the Liberal plan from the get-go should probably call me for a price on some swampland I own. Although I am pleased that there was movement on the part of the governing Liberals, they do seem to have won on two issues near and dear to them. That Bill 72 contains such precise language around these two goals suggests they were the target in the first place.

I am strongly against the removal of principals from the NSTU. That view comes from an altruistic standpoint. I believe that anyone who wishes to move into a leadership role should not have to choose between doing so and being unionized. This point is particularly poignant in education, which has, for the most part, bucked some of the more disturbing trends of the private sector around such issues as “glass ceilings” and gender pay equity.

What has me truly puzzled, of all the things contained in the Glaze report, is question of why this government has remained so fixated on removing administrators from the union. I am easily as lost in trying to figure out how it can justify the expenditures associated with it. When I look at some of the financial implications of the move, I am left scratching my supposedly cash-strapped Nova Scotian head.

The bill declares, quite adamantly, that principals and vice-principals will soon no longer be members of the NSTU, but will be “… entitled … to the same terms as a unionized teacher.”

The government is going to establish what it is calling The Public School Administrators Association of Nova Scotia, which will no longer be part of the NSTU. This body is not a bargaining unit, but can “negotiate and enter into a memorandum of understanding with the Minister respecting the terms and conditions of employment …”

So, essentially, principals have access — at least, so it seems — to some NSTU benefits (for which they will continue to pay dues), but will no longer operate under a contract. Instead, they will operate under these new memoranda of understanding.

But, here’s where things get tricky.

According to the act, “where a dispute arises … the parties may jointly refer the dispute to a mediator to attempt to settle the dispute,” which would seem to suggest that there is an avenue for the association, at least, to raise concerns.

The bill goes on to say, though, that “the parties shall each pay one half of the fees and expenses of the mediator to whom a dispute is referred.”

Now, administrators will be charged fees for belonging to the association, but it is doubtful that they will have gathered much in the way of those by September. There are also bound to be expenses involved in starting such an organization from scratch. Finally, mediation costs can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars. What is the plan if a mediation is required within, say, the first two years?

Essentially, who is going to pay for all this?

Speaking of pay, the bill guarantees that principals get the same raises as negotiated by the NSTU, but also allows that the government can pay them more, should it choose to do so.

This is probably a good thing, seeing as how, literally one bullet point after granting themselves the power to pay principals more money, Bill 72 says the employer can “at any time” demote principals back to the classroom.

So, as a principal, I am looking at being dragged out of the NSTU in order to pay fees to two bodies for a non-binding memorandum of understanding which will allow me to work under the constant threat of arbitrary demotion. Oh, and should we need to go to arbitration, the organization representing me may not have enough money to do so.

Imagine the excitement.

Now, the majority of the administrators I have heard from are not exactly thrilled by the prospect of suddenly becoming non-unionized, particularly considering the nature of the work.

The challenge, however, is that the government is going to need the majority of principals to stay put, unless it wants a complete disaster on its hands. The public seems quite concerned about weak teachers, but it has no idea what happens to a building under a weak principal. If even 20 per cent of the current administrators leave their positions, Nova Scotia’s school system will be in some pretty serious trouble.

So here’s the issue.

In order to keep principals in their roles, the government will have to offer them some pretty significant compensation, above what they are currently earning. It is probably going to have to pay to set up this association, and fund it for the first few years while it sorts itself out. If there is a call for an arbitration during this set-up period, the government will probably have to pay for that, too, since it is unlikely that collected dues will cover the associated costs.

If it doesn’t, the government runs the risk of principals determining that this is not worth either the cost or the risk, or any number of other concerns, and returning to the classroom. This loss of experienced leadership will decimate our system.

And, of course, even if they do offer bags of money to principals to remain, many will still leave their posts on principle. I am certain that the average Nova Scotian taxpayer will then be super-excited to see the salary grid of all the brand new, inexperienced managers who take their place.

One way or another, this move could very well cost us a fortune.

I don’t know why the premier is so set on winning this particular fight. I do know that he is quite happy to use austerity as an excuse when it suits him. Considering the potential cost of this for taxpayers, the damage it could do to our schools and the marked absence of any clear benefit to kids, I am left with only one question:

How much are Nova Scotians willing to pay for the premier’s beef with administrators being in the NSTU?

It may have been wise to consider that question before making Bill 72 law.

Originally published in The Chronicle Herald, in a somewhat edited form, Wednesday, March 7th, 2018



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