“Well, sir, it must be election time’, my Uncle used to say, “the paving crews are out!”
And, indeed, in that most time-honoured Nova Scotian tradition, as we waited through April for the Premier to drop the writ, the previously cash strapped government somehow found the financial resources of Midas. Announcing everything from the twinning of highways to the construction of new hospitals , the government is now seemingly flush with money. That they are going to accomplish all these amazing achievements while lowering taxes certainly seems to paint a picture of provincial prosperity.
Having this turnaround happen in such a narrow time frame is nothing short of miraculous. I am not sure you recall, but only a few months ago this same government was promoting a very different financial image, and using that image to justify legislating a contract on teachers. It would appear that between legislating a contract in February and announcing the budget in April, Nova Scotia has struck it rich.
That, or finance Minister Randy Delorey is a miracle worker.
I think most Nova Scotians realize that neither of those options is really a likely scenario. If the Province had indeed struck it rich, we would know about it, and although I have no particular knowledge of Mr. Delorey’s financial acumen, I would suggest that miracles like these are pretty typical of pre-election hype. Even back in my Uncle’s day, promises of new roads and better times ahead were the norm. And come election time, such promises, although perhaps welcome, should always be taken with a grain of salt.
Thus it was a few days ago that I sat down, salt shaker in hand, to review another list of rather timely announcements along a more educational stripe. I mean, of course, the freshly minted report from the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions.
For those of you who have not been playing along at home, this Council emerged somewhere between the 1st and 2nd contract that was being shoved, far from surreptitiously, down the throats of the Province’s 9,300 school teachers by the self-proclaimed “hard bargaining” Liberal government. (It is hard for me to consider the Liberal approach to this dispute as anything even remotely resembling bargaining, but I digress). The council was meant as a place for teachers to have a direct voice in educational change so that the DoEECD could hear from its front line workers. Despite what appeared to be an attempt by Education MInister Karen Casey to undermine the process early on in the labour dispute, the committee survived the legislated contract, although in a somewhat weakened form.
On April 27th, just a few days before the writ dropped and coinciding with the budget, the Council released its first report, outlining a wide array of recommendations to help improve the learning conditions of Nova Scotia’s students.
And even an old curmudgeon like me must admit the list, at least, is impressive.
If there was ever any doubt as to the value of listening to the concerns of frontline workers, this document lays them soundly to rest. Right from the introduction, the 42 page document reads as if it were indeed written by teachers, for teachers.
It begins by expressing a number of expectations for the council which include such novel notions as valuing teacher voice as well as respecting their professional judgment and autonomy. It also addresses the idea that any changes suggested by the council should be “tangible and practical” as well as equitably implemented.
The report then goes on to identify 27 fairly broad problem areas, and 40 separate recommendations for either immediate or ongoing actions. The problem areas listed are quite indicative of any number that have been raised over the past few years, including report card policies, attendance policies, class sizes and data collection. The recommendations are relatively teacher friendly, and include such common sense approaches as asking the DoEECD to explain the rationale behind report card changes, and scheduling contractual assessment and evaluation days so that they occur when teachers are actually in need of time to assess and evaluate.
The report also sets timelines for these recommendations to occur in fairly short order, no doubt because the teachers on the panel are expressing the frustration of all teachers who feel that change occurs at a pace that works only for the employer.
Finally, the report even went so far as to contain a budget summary. This included recommending approximately $9 million for hiring upwards of 140 new teachers to achieve class caps of 28 (+2) and 30 (+2) in middle school and high school respectively, as well as implementing a new “teachers helping teachers” program. This program, it seems, would consist of placing 40 of those 140 teachers in some of the most challenging classrooms in the province to provide math and literacy support.
So, all in all it would be hard for even the crustiest of curmudgeon’s to argue with these recommendations as being a positive step towards improving current classroom conditions.
Hard, but not impossible.
Look, I give the teachers on that council all the credit in the world. They are really doing a bang up job of identifying issues and are ensuring that the changes teachers want to see are implemented under a pretty tight timeline. However, upon applying a shake or two of good old-fashioned table salt, my Uncle’s voice begins to echo rather resoundingly in my ears.
To start with, the concerns that are currently being expressed by the council members to the suddenly attentive DoEECD are nothing new. In fact, many of these have been brought forward long before this through the NSTU’s Annual General Meeting. At that meeting, for as long as I have been attending and well before that, hundreds of teacher delegates from around the province have voted to bring concerns like class size and data collection forward to the DoEECD.
That they remain concerns to be dealt with by the council tells you how far that process has gotten us.
Then there is the financial side of things. It is of some note that the council has effectively already spent its $20 million budget, and again, I commend the teachers sitting at the table for getting at least some spending commitments in writing. However, it is of more interest to me that, back in November when teachers wanted to put class caps on the negotiating table , the Liberals quite publicly declared the associated cost would be prohibitive, placing the price tag at $41 million.
How something can cost less than $20 million when asked for by the council but $41 million when asked for in negotiations seems to be a head scratcher indeed.
Finally, there is the teeth of the thing. Promises do not an action make, as it were. Although many of these commitments may have the optimist in me cheering to the rafters, the fact that they rely on the benevolence of the government to have the final say on what does and does not get done leaves me more than a little leery.
Yes, we have promises of smaller classes and more resources, just like we have promises of twinned highways and a brighter future for all. And as the election busses begin to move out across the Province, there will, I am sure, be many such declarations.
However, for those of us who screamed ourselves hoarse outside of Province House, for those of us who marched in the streets, for those of us who saw our elected officials treat our friends and colleagues with nothing short of outright disdain during Law Amendments, some skepticism remains.
Despite the efforts of our colleagues on the council, we will not be taken in by fool’s gold.
And on May 30th, 9300 of us will may very well be hoping this is true for a vast majority of voters in the Province.
Originally published in Localxpress on May 4th, 2017.