In the days since the teachers strike began much information has been published trying to clarify the issues. In some cases it appears as if the information is contradictory.
The teachers' union is claiming that the provincial government has cut funding to education, while the government is claiming just the opposite. B.C.'s teachers are already the highest paid in Canada with the smallest class sizes, something which the union disputes.
Pique Newsmagazine asked school trustee Don Brett to address some of the issues and offer some insight into what the facts really are.
Pique: The BCTF is asking for a 15 per cent salary increase but some reports are claiming the increase is 35 per cent. Which is correct?
Brett: The BCTF is seeking a 15 per cent salary increase for teachers over three years. The BCTF has tabled other contract improvements that school boards estimate would increase total teacher payroll cost 35 per cent or $938 million annually province-wide. School boards want the total cost of the contract publicized because in the last contract the government awarded the teachers an increase but didnt provide enough additional funding to pay for it.
P: Some teachers have stated that they are willing to accept just a cost of living increase. How much do teachers need to catch up?
B: In the last four contract years ending July 1, 2004 teachers received increases compounding to 9.8 per cent, roughly the same as inflation for that period.
P: How big are the funding cuts the public education in B.C. has experienced?
B: Total funding to school boards from the Ministry of Education has not changed significantly over the last three years. The problem for school boards is that the underlying cost of services has increased more than funding. In our district, the average cost of filling one full time teacher position has gone up about 11 per cent in the last four years to a little under $80,000 made up of salary, $61,500, benefits, $13,500 and sick leave, $3,600.
P: Is this why class sizes have increased so much?
B: In our district class sizes have, in fact, gone down slightly and are currently at about the average level we have seen over the last 10 years. The B.C. School Act limits the average kindergarten class to 19 with no one class bigger than 22 and the average Grade 1-3 class to 21 with no one class over 24. In early September, our district figures showed our average kindergarten at 17, average Grade 1-3 at 21 and average Grade 4-7 at 27. We did not have a single elementary class in the district over 30 students. At Whistler Secondary the average junior class (Grades 8-10) is about 24 and the senior classes are about 26. Whistler Secondary has just three classes over 30, two at 32, and one a 31, and the remaining roughly 50 classes are at 30 or below.
P: But isnt it misleading to just look at the average size?
B: We also monitor and manage individual class sizes. The point about the average class is that we have sufficient funding to have a size across the district averaging roughly 25 so if you see a significantly bigger class its not a budget problem per se but a problem in balancing the class registrations. For instance, if 34 students register for a high school class, what do you do? That's too many for one class but splitting it will create two classes of just 17 .
P: So are you telling me you dont have a budget problem?
B: No, we do have a budget problem. On a purchasing power basis we have probably lost five per cent over the last four years . We have been able to make up part of that through revenues from the International Student Program but the board is uncomfortable with having to rely on international students to make up what is a government-funding gap. This budget strain is not showing up in class sizes, it is showing up in teacher librarian ratios and a number of other areas such as difficulty in making progress on learning initiatives.
P: We keep hearing that students dont have desks and they dont have textbooks. Do we see that in our district?
B: I dont think we have any such issues that have not been addressed. As far as desks are concerned, I don't think that's true at all. What we have had from time to time is problems with our physical space, such as at Whistler Secondary, and that problem has been solved with the recent addition to the building.
Regarding textbooks, there may have been issues in the past but there should be none now. For instance, in September the district provided an additional $85 per student to schools from last years surplus with the direction to principals to spend the money on textbooks first.
Don Brett, a graduate from The Ivey School of Business at University of Western Ontario, spent 15 years with City Bank in international finance before coming to Whistler in 1999 and is the chair of the school boards finance committee.