Premier Christy Clark's new Education Minister officially took up his post at the centre of a hornet's nest on Monday, with marching orders to secure a 10-year labour deal with B.C.'s public school teachers. At the same time, Peter Fassbender is also tasked with bringing about a large-scale transformation of the province's education system.
At the top of Mr. Fassbender's briefing book – actually in a digital file that he can study on his iPad – is the next round of bargaining with the B.C. Teachers' Federation. He has a new mandate to pursue a decade-long contract that is viewed with great suspicion by the union.
"I hope the leaders of the teachers' union will recognize that part of this mandate from the public very clearly is to pursue a 10-year agreement with teachers," Ms. Clark told reporters on Monday, shortly after her new cabinet ministers met officially for the first time.
The current contract for B.C.'s 45,000 teachers expires at the end of June. Their union is being asked to bargain through this summer, after being informed to rethink bargaining in light of the newly elected government's priority.
Ms. Clark's election promise to seek long-term labour peace, in a sector that has long been defined by acrimony and disruption, is a tall order, particularly when the Premier has also instructed each of her new ministers to "do their part" to balance the budget.
Mr. Fassbender's ministry is in the midst of crafting a wide-ranging education overhaul that looks at how both teachers and students are evaluated, and what is taught in schools and how. Above all, the system is examining how to produce high-school graduates ready to move into the job market or into the right postsecondary program to take advantage of the kinds of jobs B.C. will be producing in the coming years.
Mr. Fassbender, the outgoing mayor of Langley, is a rookie MLA in charge of one of the largest ministries in the provincial government, with a $5.3-billion budget. He will be the sixth education minister that BCTF president Susan Lambert has had to deal with. But the union's leadership is changing too – Jim Iker takes over on July 1 and he is likely to be the one sitting down with the new Education Minister.
Ms. Lambert said that discussion will be dominated by a debate around school funding.
"The mythological narrative we hear is that B.C. has the highest education funding ever," she said in an interview. "We have to deconstruct that myth every time we get a new minister. What has actually happened here in B.C. is that funding has not kept pace with inflation. … We can't keep closing schools and cutting programs."
She said Mr. Fassbender will find little enthusiasm for a 10-year deal if it doesn't move away from the present funding formulas.
"I don't see how that is possible. I'm absolutely committed to finding stability in the system," she said. "But that can't be locking students and teachers into as the same conditions as they have today."
Aside from trying to end labour disruptions in schools, the government wants to "modernize" the contract to bring about changes in the classroom. A draft document on the school curriculum is expected to be completed this summer on the kindergarten-to-Grade 10 system. A second review, on the final two years of high school and graduation, will follow.