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Teachers and money

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Flin Flon has about 80 teachers and only four schools, but the four-year deal they’ve reached with their trustees could have profound effects on public school financing throughout Manitoba.

Flin Flon teachers have the first -- and so far only -- contract covering the period July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2014.

They’ve settled for a smaller increase than teachers have come to expect as the minimum raise for the past decade.

The basic deal is two phased-in 1.5 per cent raises for the period from July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011, followed by annual raises of two per cent a year, payable each September.

Not since Mystery Lake teachers in Thompson achieved three per cent raises early in the millennium have teachers anywhere in Manitoba settled for less than three per cent.

The three per cent overall raise this current school year is the same deal that Louis Riel School Division teachers took, following the 2009-2010 year in which LRSD teachers received a 4.82 per cent overall increase.

Otherwise, every other bargaining unit in Manitoba has been without a teachers’ contract since last summer. We know that city divisions have opened bargaining by asking for a wage freeze, and we know that several divisions are looking at arbitration hearings in the fall or winter.

But Flin Flon has settled.

Trustees and superintendents have long contended that teachers are eager to go to arbitration, because gains made by one division’s teachers in a new contract become the minimum on which everyone else bases claims for even higher wages and benefits.

Interestingly, Manitoba Teachers’ Society president Pat Isaak says the Flin Flon deal’s two per cent raises are not a precedent. Isaak says teachers are still playing catchup from the 1990s, when they had wage frezees or even reductions, but now teachers are telling MTS that working conditions are just as high a priority as money.

Flin Flon teachers wanted guaranteed daily prep time and got it, so they were OK settling for less money than had become the norm, said Isaak.

Other divisions will have other priorities for working conditions and wage increases, she said.

So what has long been considered a precedent when it worked for teachers — wage levels in the first contract settled — is no longer a precedent when it doesn’t maybe work quite as well for teachers.

Maybe it’s time here to point out that most public sector workers have been settling for multi-year deals that called for wage freezes in the first and/or second year, including university professors and college instructors. The province has tied university tuition fees to provincial inflation rates, one per cent this coming school year, so the teachers are still running ahead of inflation.

By the summer of 2014, a Flin Flon teacher with an undergraduate degree, an education degree, and 10 years’ experience will be making $87,334.

Teachers have come to expect that they would annually get a base increase of at least three per cent, plus cash up to $550, plus increments, plus in some cases guaranteed parity with teachers in neighbouring divisions. That cash can take a teacher’s annual raise up by more than a percentage point, depending on years of experience — it’s still about another 0.7 per cent for a veteran.

Keep in mind that the province has been leaning on school trustees to freeze school property taxes and to cap spending increases at the level of a combination of provincial operating grant increases and provincial tax incentive grants.

With teachers representing about 64 per cent of operating budgets — all employees bring it to around 85 per cent — the math simply didn’t work to continue paying those previous levels of increases, while freezing taxes and capping spending, and all the while maintaining or even expanding the current number of people on the payroll.

Whether the current teacher workforce is sustainable even at two per cent raises will depend on what the province does each year on operating grants and tax incentive grants and property tax freezes. Certainly, two per cent works better than three per cent plus cash.

My rough estimate, which teachers will surely challenge, is that one percentage point plus that cash, works out to about $20.7 million annually. Not exactly chump change.

Now the trustees can point to two per cent as a precedent, and they can try playing hardball across the bargaining table. Yes, I recognize that some people would be happy to take two per cent in this economic climate, and they don’t see what’s hardball about trying to limit an employee to a two per cent raise.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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