Finding money for CUPE wage hike would be ‘difficult’

Finding additional savings to pay for any support staff wage increases "will be difficult," according to SD71 superintendent Sherry Elwood

Finding additional savings to pay for any support staff wage increases “will be difficult,” according to Comox Valley School District superintendent Sherry Elwood.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender sent a memo to school board chairs last week asking that savings plans be developed to pay for any wage increases for Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) support staff, who are expected to head back to the bargaining table this week.

Elwood said last week the Comox Valley Board of Education already found savings in its 2013/2014 budget, but those savings were used to balance the budget, and finding other savings to pay for support staff wage increases would be hard.

“I think it’s really important for folks to understand that the budgeting process for the school year that we’re going into took place in the spring of this year and so asking boards to go back to that same budgeting process and find additional savings…will be difficult,” said Elwood. “I know that that information has been communicated already to government and I would expect that it would continue to be communicated to government.”

Elwood added she will accompany Trustee Janice Caton to a BC School Trustees’ Association meeting in Vancouver later this week, where she expects trustees will discuss the matter and decide how to respond to government in a collective voice.

Meanwhile, in a conference call last week, Fassbender said ministry staff has been working with school districts to find savings, noting finding savings to pay for wage increases is laid out in the cooperative gains mandate. He added a number of school boards “have come back with the indication that they are prepared to work within that framework.”

“There is a wide range of opportunities under shared services and a number of other creative options that have been discussed so far,” he later added in answer to how additional savings can be found. “Ultimately the school districts have the flexibility within the framework to make sure that they look at every opportunity, and there may be some province wide that we’re working very closely with them.”

The memo notes that “savings plans must not impact the delivery of core educational services.”

Fassbender clarified core services the “fundamentals within the education system,” such as reading, writing and numeracy.

According to the co-operative gains mandate, employers, in this case boards of education, must not reduce service levels to the public or transfer costs of existing service onto the public in order to fund wage increases.

Previous Education Minister Don McRae, who is also the Comox Valley MLA and a past teacher, sent a similar request in December for boards to find additional savings for CUPE support staff wage increases. Like other boards around the province, the Comox Valley Board of Education said it could not find these savings.

Elwood noted the correspondence from Fassbender is similar to McRae request.

“It is very similar to what occurred a year ago,” she said, pointing out there have been a number of memos from Fassbender. “What is different is that there is a clear direction from the ministry in a way that wasn’t there (before), that districts — the words are “expected to find savings,’ or ‘must find savings.’ “

CUPE support staff include education assistants, clerical staff, trades, custodians, bus drivers and other education workers. They have been without a wage increase for over four years.

Though they head back to the bargaining table this week, talks have broken off three times since last spring, and all locals, including the Comox Valley, have voted in favour of strike action.

According to a ministry spokesperson, employers in other areas, such as health care, have been able to find savings in their budgets to pay for employee wage increases, as per the co-operative gains mandate.

Fassbender noted government will bargain directly with teachers in an effort to reach a 10-year deal, and the province would fund any wage increase for teachers if an agreement is reached. Bargaining is expected to start in October.

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