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Trustees face bargaining decision

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The big story at the Manitoba School Boards Association convention this Thursday through Saturday will be whether a majority of trustees finally wants some form of province-wide bargaining.

Sure, the resolutions on full-day daily kindergarten will make good reading, but are contingent upon the province coming up with tens of millions of dollars. And no one outside the room will care about membership fees or moving the convention out of Winnipeg occasionally.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society has been in favour of province-wide bargaining for years, and the province has always maintained that it won’t get involved province-wide until both parties are onside.

MTS hasn’t spelled out what kind of province-wide bargaining it favours, but one school board’s resolution on the floor would have MSBA do the negotiating, not the province, and it would be two-tiered, wages bargained province-wide and every other working condition bargained locally.

I’ve been over this ground umpteen times, but teachers’ pay and benefits are critical to school board budgets, close to two-thirds of the $1.9 billion spent on public education operating costs each year.

Remember, there is no strike or lockout in teacher bargaining in Manitoba.

All but one division has been without a teachers’ contract since July 1, 2010, and none of those divisions is remotely close to settling. Several divisions and bargaining units are awaiting arbitration dates, which won’t come until at least the fall.

That means the first arbitrator’s ruling likely won’t come until sometime in 2012. School boards preparing their 2012-2013 budgets will be looking at having to come up with at least two years of retroactive pay.

That is, if the deals call for a raise.

Like the rest of the public sector that’s been getting two-year wage freezes or minimal raises in the first two years of longer settlements, school boards have been offering teachers zero and zero for the first two years of their new contracts.

Not surprisingly, teachers have rejected a wage freeze.

MTS has argued that it’s still playing catch-up for the real wages lost to inflation during the early 1990s, when Tory governments froze or reduced public school operating grants.

The last few years, teachers have been accustomed to receiving a basic increase of at least three per cent, plus cash up to $550, plus increments, plus, in a few cases, parity with neighbouring divisions. If raises continue at that pace, then within seven years or so, with compounding, the average teacher with 10 years’ experience will have a salary of $100,000 a year.

Teachers may well be worth that much, and more, but it’s pretty tough to plug those numbers into a budget that limits spending increases and freezes taxes, without reducing the number of people on the payroll.

All the large city divisions went for a tax freeze this year, choosing to accept the province’s tax incentive grant in exchange for capping spending increases.

The teachers’ number crunchers will be dissecting those budgets, but I’m betting that the budgets don’t provide for the kind of raises that teachers have recently received and want to keep receiving. And don’t look to contingency reserve funds — the province has told trustees to spend their so-called surpluses, so there’s no retroactive pay stashed away for a rainy day.

If arbitrators side with teachers, trustees could find themselves facing whopping tax increases to cover back pay.

Your dead trees edition will give you all the details Saturday of the trustees’ next move.

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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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