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robert matas

" It's perfectly reasonable that B.C. teachers want to keep up with inflation and move a little way toward catching up with teachers in other provinces," British Columbia Teachers' Federation president Susan Lambert said last month as she announced the union's position on salaries.

Teachers across British Columbia are voting on Tuesday and Wednesday on whether to walk off the job just as the provincial government is expected to impose a contract.

The teachers' contract expired last spring. The BCTF and the British Columbia Public School Employers' Association have spent several months at meetings but have little to show for their efforts.

The debate over provincial ranking appears to be part of a campaign to garner support for the teachers. Since negotiations started last March, Ms. Lambert and other officials have repeatedly raised the issue of how teachers' salaries in B.C. rank, compared to other provinces.

A comparison of salaries is likely not an issue that will bring either side to the barricades.

But the debate over the province's ranking provides a glimpse into how far apart the two sides are. They cannot even agree on readily available statistical information about teachers' salaries across the country.

Teachers' salaries in B.C. for the 60 school districts range from an average starting salary of $47,461 to an average maximum of $75,083. The teachers' federation, in a report entitled 2011 Canadian Teacher Salary Rankings: Provinces and Territories, compared salaries across Canada. Rankings were based on a selection of cities in the larger provinces and the Northwest Territories, and on provincewide figures for the Maritimes, Nunavut, Yukon and Newfoundland and Labrador.

The report looked at teachers' salaries in Category 5 in the pay scale across the country. (Teachers are assigned to a salary category based on education credentials and move up a salary grid based on years of experience.)

B.C. ranked ninth. Restricting the comparison to only provinces, B.C. rose to sixth.

B.C. did worse when starting salary was used – 11th in a cross-country comparison; eighth in a ranking of only provinces.

Focusing on teachers paid the most, the federation says a teacher in Edmonton with equivalent years of experience and education was earning $95,354 this year, compared to $74,353 for a teacher in Vancouver.

The employers' association has acknowledged that B.C. was not among the top-paying provinces. But neither was the province near the tail end, the association has said.

The association did a different comparison and found that B.C. teacher salaries ranked fourth across Canada, excluding the three northern territories. Its report entitled Teacher Compensation 2011, Context and Considerations dismissed the teachers' federation ranking as "a less accurate comparison."

The union did not compare salaries for the typical teacher in the largest category, and exaggerated the gaps between B.C. and other provinces, an official with the employers' association said Monday. The teachers used selective comparisons, looking mostly at cities such as Edmonton and Toronto that paid teachers more than the provincial average, the association said.

Averages are not the most transparent measure for a comparison. A higher average salary could reflect a work force with more experienced teachers who were at the top of their pay scale. A lower salary may not reflect significant allowances and benefits, which vary depending on the provinces.

Regardless, the employers' association recognizes that the two sides should not be quibbling about comparisons. The rankings should not be a point of contention in negotiations, the official said.