Times Colonist Editorial from Geoff Johnson

Welcome back to British Columbia’s day of national disgrace. After a week or so of bumbling, scrambling and face-saving in high places, B.C.’s public schools are still shuttered and half a million children are barred from participation in what was once one of the world’s better systems of public education.

Both the government and the leaders of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation should hang their heads in shame.

A summer of opportunity was frittered away, one that should have at least seen the warring sides come to a level of understanding that could have sent 500,000 kids back to school today. Political considerations and a history of mutual cynicism disgracefully trumped the kids’ chance at being in class somewhere other than in an independent school.

In the absence of shame, as they say, all conduct is excusable.

The media pictures of the premier sipping wine in Saskatchewan, while B.C. parents and kids frantically looked for safe child-care alternatives for this week, said it all about the government’s priorities.

The BCTF, having backed itself into a corner by calling a premature strike in the last two weeks of June, has realized too late that the government had no intention of making a deal.

Too late, as well, to understand that this never was a normal negotiation — something that mediator Vince Ready recognized months ago and confirmed again this weekend.

The decades of rancorous and unproductive relationships between teachers’ union leaders and governments of three political parties — Social Credit, NDP and Liberal — has led public education in B.C. to a place outside the normal expectations of a progressive society.

Hovering over this educational dystopia has been a labour-relations structure designed for a different time and one found consistently unworkable in serving the needs of B.C.’s kids and their parents.

Too late to grasp that teachers are not hardhat factory or mill workers who, as a union, can bring an unjust employer to its knees by crippling a business.

Too late to realize that the government is not a private-enterprise employer with labour-relations decisions and conflicts circumscribed by the profit margin. Teachers teach children and government is elected to make sure that happens.

Too late to see that there was a serious responsibility on the part of both the BCTF and the government to make sure that the purpose of their relationship is focused on getting school operating.

That responsibility has been set aside and schools are closed because both sides have failed to fully appreciate their obligations that demand that, whatever it takes, schools open today and a year of learning begins.

But that has not happened and there is no point in retelling, once again, the disgraceful history that has led us to this point.

No point in revisiting illegal behaviour by a government that, for 12 years since it legislated its way out of the teacher contract, has accumulated what amounts to a court-imposed insurmountable debt.

No point in questioning the ill-conceived strategies of the BCTF, including the demand that the government pay up on that debt and pay up now.

No point in wondering why neither side has accepted their mutual responsibility to set aside their abysmal history and seek a solution that leaves neither side satisfied, but which supports the greater good.

There is no likelihood that the government will buy the kind of solution it did in on June 30, 2006, when, with the 2010 Olympics looming, the government avoided the potential embarrassment of school closures and picket lines contrasting with Olympic largesse by agreeing to a settlement that included a 16 per cent salary increase over a five-year term and a $4,000 signing bonus for each teacher.

That was then and this is now. The Olympics imperative does not exist and, with new priorities identified, the government will continue to allocate its assets as it sees fit. Public-sector employees, having campaigned unsuccessfully for a change in government during the last election, will continue to find themselves at the end of the generosity line.

The government and the BCTF have demonstrated that, for one of the very few times since the inception of Canadian universal public education, B.C. will now blunder onward and lead the way into a new world of labour relations where, without regard to the consequences for 500,000 kids and their parents, winning at any cost is what it is all about.

Welcome back.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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