No room in Alberta’s budget for raises for teachers

We need to spend money on creating jobs, not padding the income of those already employed

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RED DEER, Alta./ March 1, 2016/ Troy Media/ – It’s standard negotiating practice to float trial balloons. But some suggestions deserve to be promptly shot down.

Case in point: the recent suggestion by the head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association that teachers should not abandon the possibility of a raise in the next, imminent, round of contract negotiations.

Most Albertans could likely support increased spending on education, with a few clear provisos: that the money be spent on more teachers and smaller class sizes; that increasingly injurious school fees be eliminated, or at least dramatically reduced; that the best technology be introduced into the classroom; that programs be expanded to offer new and varied skills; that post-secondary opportunities rise; and that post-secondary tuition be significantly reduced.

In essence, Albertans would support more spending for education, across the board, if that spending was going to improve schooling overall: the quality of instruction and the accessibility of that instruction.

But last week, ATA president Mark Ramsankar told the Edmonton Teachers’ Convention that teachers should not expect a pay freeze. The inference is clear: it’s time to be rewarded for the last contract’s modest goals.

“We recognize the economic climate that Alberta’s in,” he said. “You’d have to live under a rock not to know it. But make no mistake about it, teachers have their own economic reality that we’ve just come from. And that is not to be ignored either.”

That reality was a three-year wage freeze, followed by a two per cent raise and a one per cent lump payout in the deal’s final year. That deal expires in the spring.

But the teachers’ reality is just one factor in any conversation about public spending.

The other reality is much more grim. It involves thousands of Albertans who have lost their jobs in the last 14 months, and no obvious light at the end of a tunnel that looks very much like a full-blown recession. The province’s economy has dropped like a stone (2015’s job loss numbers in Alberta were the worst since 1982, according to Statistics Canada).

At the end of the day, only government spending will keep this situation from getting worse. And that means prudent choices by the New Democratic government. We are now being told that the provincial government’s deficit could reach $10.4 billion in the 2016-17 fiscal year as world oil prices continue to scrape bottom.

So from a fiscal management perspective, it’s impossible to justify giving one group of employed Albertans any kind of raise when thousands of Albertans are losing their jobs or are significantly underemployed. It would be far better if that deficit spending went to new job creation, and the social supports needed by a population hard hit by an economic downturn.

It is what Premier Rachel Notely has called “a menu of bad options,” but the best options, already identified by the province, must be pursued: to build infrastructure and diversify the economy. Certainly, going further into deficit spending – or, worse yet, bumping up taxes – to pay teachers more should in no way be an option. That’s not a bad option, that’s an unconscionable one.

That doesn’t mean that Alberta’s 38,000 teachers are undeserving of our appreciation and admiration. And our support as parents, employers and citizens in general. Alberta’s students rank with the best in the country when it comes to education and skills, according to the Conference Board of Canada. Internationally, you will only find better prepared students in Japan and Finland. That kind of quality, ultimately, will give us the tools as an economy and a society to rise from this mess.

But even after a three-year wage freeze, and a small increase in the fourth year of the current deal, Alberta’s teachers remain the best paid in the nation. The average elementary school teacher makes $74,679 a year, according to Alberta Education. That’s as much as 20 per cent above the national average. Overall, Alberta civil servants make 12 per cent more than the average public-sector workers elsewhere in the country.

Certainly, any good negotiator will start the process by bidding high. But Alberta’s teachers better not expect anything more than they are receiving now.

Albertans can’t afford it – and wouldn’t stand for it.

As trial balloons go, this one is a lead zeppelin.

Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a born and bred Albertan who doesn’t drill for oil, ranch or drive a pickup truck – although all of those things have played a role in his past. John is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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