Teachers preparing for arduous contract talks Bargaining teacher contracts on a province-wide basis has local school board officials and teachers bracing for a long and arduous round of negotiations. Doug Courtice, superintendent of schools for the Howe Sound School District, says the NDP government created the British Columbia Public School Employers' Association in an attempt to streamline the bargaining process. This is the first year teacher contracts will be negotiated province-wide. "This new process definitely puts restraints on where we can bargain to, or from," Courtice says. "It closes the window of bargaining on a local level as a third party has been added." The third party, BCPSEA, has to ratify all collective agreements after they have been tentatively agreed upon by local boards and teachers' associations in the province's 45 school districts. The purpose of the province-wide bargaining plan is to "level the playing field" when it comes time to talk salaries with teachers. The richer districts were setting precedents those with less cash could not meet when agreeing to wage increases. While the NDP government moves to centralize negotiations in education, they are moving to de-centralizing health care. New regional health councils are being created all over the province and the NDP is giving these councils more control over how health care dollars are spent. Courtice says the main restriction will hit home when it comes time to talk cash with teachers as the BCPSEA will have final approval of local contracts, and if wage concessions are out of line with the rest of the province a contract could be rejected, sending teachers and school board negotiators back to the bargaining table. Alex Miller, president of the Howe Sound Teachers Association, says not only will the creation of the BCPSEA make the bargaining process more cumbersome it will slow down an already slow negotiating process. "We were not supportive of this move from the beginning," Miller says. "We have always had a very good working relationship with the local board. It hasn't been easy, but we always get our grievances resolved." Two years ago, local teachers went so far as to authorize a strike vote and conducted a work to rule campaign as they went through a long and tedious bargaining process. With some of the control taken away from the local bargainers, Miller says the "time frame involved with this provincial bargaining is going to be quite frightening." The local bargaining team, composed of HSTA representatives and school board chair Don Wilson, will sit down with teachers at the bargaining table Jan. 25-26. The whole process must be concluded by March, when the school district's budget must be completed.