Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Choosing an education premier

Ontario Liberal Party members will choose this province's next premier starting Jan. 25 in Toronto. As I did with the selection of a new Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario leader back in 2009, it's time to look at the six candidates for OLP leader and what their outlook on the government's second-largest expense is.
Straight off the top, this campaign's candidates feature experience in the portfolio not seen in any recent leadership campaigns provincially in quite some time. Gerard Kennedy was the Liberals' education critic before they won the election in 2003, jumping into the minister's seat until he stepped out of provincial politics to run for federal positions. Sandra Pupatello slid into the seat -- the leadership candidate education minister who ended up spending the least time in this portfolio. Then Kathleen Wynne, who has been the longest-serving education minister of this government's mandates.
Enough familiarity with the ministry to know its importance and how it runs, but at the same time each of those three has some distance from the government's more recent track record relating to things like Bill 13 and the painful round of contracts.
Summaries are based on keyword searches of each candidates' websites, as well as whether they've made any specific statements on education that have received coverage. The debates have dodged direct questions on Bill 115, which has left candidates to address that on their own terms and time. With the pending repeal of the bill, it also changes a little bit of the dynamic.
Anyway, onto the candidates, in alphabetical order.

Eric Hoskins
  •  Hoskins has no particular education platform, other than motherhood and apple pie-type statements scattered throughout his various addresses and speeches.
  • The most specific thing he says of interest to K-12 is a statement from back in December asking the government to hold off on implementing any contracts under Bil 115.
Gerard Kennedy
  • Kennedy came out of the gate with perhaps the strongest education content as part of his campaign. As the first of the Liberal education ministers, it was under his tenure the first provincial discussion tables were held leading to the 2004-08 deals for teachers' unions. For those who forget, that was the Campaign 200 round of negotiations. He's not afraid to remind everyone of this since education was the only portfolio he held in the government.
  • Kennedy has not shied away from saying Bill 115 was a mistake.He has a whole section (OK, one page) of his campaign site dedicated to his "plan for peace," which would tear up Bill 115. It was written back in December, but Kennedy is still saying this bill would be repealed and that bargaining between locals and their school boards would replace it, with provincial discussion tables being struck. I haven't seen, lately, whether he has strayed from this position now that contracts were imposed on OSSTF and ETFO. I'm not aware of whether or not he's committed to tearing up the imposed contracts (or all of them) and re-opening negotiations.
 Sandra Pupatello
  • As Kennedy's successor in the portfolio, I've been surprised she doesn't tout her education experience more often than she has. As the only candidate I've personally seen speak (I covered her appearance in Brantford in December) during the campaign up to this point, she leads with jobs and economy and follows with community and social services, the portfolios she held after and before education. Her various "plan forwards" address education only in the Northern Ontario section, but address post-secondary more than K-12.
  • Her only statement on the labour strife came in January, a plea to teachers to continue volunteering for extra-curricular activities. In its content, Pupatello states the circumstances leading to Bill 115 were regrettable, but doesn't convincingly state either way whether she'd repeal it or how she would deal with its continuing impact. It's a carefully worded statement that doesn't indicate how she'll handle the file if she wins the leadership.
 Charles Sousa
  • Sousa actually has an education section to his platform, though I wish it said more on K-12. He mentions only encouraging entrepreneurship and labour-market focused career planning for high school students, as well as "protecting the integrity" of the Ontario Secondary School Diploma. Both of which could mean entirely different things depending on who you ask.
  • He does, however, kick off his education page by thanking McGuinty's leadership on the file.
 Harinder Takhar
  • I hadn't expected to find as much K-12 content as I did on his campaign website. Scouring through the place however, Takhar has some pointed, interesting elements that touch on K-12, more than the candidates alphabetically ahead of him on this list.
  • From the fiscal side, on his road map to eliminate the deficit, Takhar picks up on the declining student enrolment vs. increasing numbers of non-teaching / non-classroom staff in the system (straight out of the Drummond Report), saying he'd find $600 million a year in reducing this number through attrition and retirements over three years. He also would find $200 million in rationalizing full-day kindergarten through student-staff ratios and staffing based more on Pascal's recommended model than the one that's being implemented. That was also, more or less, straight out of Drummond.
  • In a few sections, such as the Northern Ontario one, he mentions school accommodation guidelines to accommodate smaller populations-- which I thought many already did.
  • On the labour front, he commits to meeting with unions, "while keeping in mind the financial realities faced by the province at this time."
Kathleen Wynne
  • As the candidate who's spent the longest period of time in the education minister's portfolio, one should expect she would have a beefy section in her platform on education. Let's remember that full implementation of the primary class size initiative, the negotiation of the 2008-12 round of education-sector contract (and standing up to ETFO when it stayed away from the PDT for too long, losing its members wage parity with their colleagues) and the start of FDK all came under her term as minister. She's also the only candidate who has experience as a trustee and school board chair (TDSB, prior to her election as MPP).
  • Her "The way we learn" section, while brief, contains substantive points on curriculum review, student achievement, parental engagement, early learning, experiential education (co-ops, apprenticeships, etc.), school board governance and most interestingly to me, establishing a Premier's Youth Advisory Council -- a concept not seen in Ontario since Bob Rae was premier. Also, a commitment to Aboriginal education by working with the feds to share the province's experience in K-12.
  • There's a commitment to sit down with "education partners" to strengthen the bargaining process at provincial and local levels, but that's not enough detail for someone wondering how she would handle the impact of Bill 115's imposed contracts.
 Overall, with a few surprises, I'm quite disappointed at the lack of substantive material posted to candidates' websites or public statements regarding education. In many cases, education commentary focuses on post-secondary, not K-12. I'm not surprised by this, as K-12 is not the sexy element you sell your platform with in the midst of a headline-grabbing dispute between the current administration and its unions.

More importantly, the lack of substance on K-12 is troubling. Elementary and secondary schooling is the province's second-largest expense after health care costs. It's a government-funded service, like health care, that everyone uses at some point in their lives, often at multiple points (first as students and then as parents).
To those who are part of the process of selecting the new leader and who care about K-12, choose carefully. I hope the information above helps.

Monday, January 7, 2013

On sick days

I'm taking an opportunity to flush out the position I have when it comes to the sick-day issue. While I've often expressed it in bursts of 140 characters, it deserves more space than that.
Why? Obviously driven by the reduction of annual sick days from two per month to one a month that was in the government's objectives from the start on the 2012-14 contracts. It was tied to a the elimination of the ability to bank unused sick days that still existed within many (but not all) boards.
Context often lacking from much reporting on this subject is that banked days are not lost-- they're vested. Employees simply cannot add to the bank from September 2012 onwards.
As I've understood it, in those areas where it exists, this large a number of annual sick days and bankable days were negotiated into agreements as a means of accomplishing a number of items.
First, the sheer number recognized that teachers are both exposed to a higher degree of illness due to the vectors of illness they move amongst every day (ie: kids get sick a lot and spread illness easily), are more likely to become sick themselves as a result and for the sake of their students, not keep spreading illness.
The bankability also accomplished another element-- it became a de facto short-term disability plan where, in situations where a teacher needed to use their annual allotment but still was not healthy enough to return to work, s/he could dip into their bank of unused days without financial penalty. If an employee used all their days, I'm pretty sure every school board had long-term disability plans that would kick in after that.
Along the way however, the bankability was also negotiated into a payout. Depending on the board, on departure or retirement and in some cases also length of service, any banked days would be paid out. In most places there was a cap on the number of days that could be banked in order to limit the employer's future financial liability.
Somewhere along the way, that bankability became a part of some teachers' retirement planning. They'd let days accumulate (by nature of good health or by working when they could have been off sick) and in exchange on retirement have a nice little nest egg to tap into.
This arrangement is not exclusive to teachers. It exists in many areas -- particularly within the public service -- and off the top of my head some of the more egregious sick-day bankers are in the emergency services, police and fire more so than EMS.
To be clear, my position on bankability applies to all those publicly funded folks who can bank days. I'm not just being critical of the practice in education-- it's topical to education now because of being a government goal in these contracts.
Let's consider the above clearly. Let's also consider what sick days should be for-- illness. If you're sick (or tending to someone who is, as parents and caregivers often do), take your sick day(s). That's what they're for. They're not holidays. They're not floating days off. They're not meant to be taken (or banked for a gratuity) just because they exist. They're for when you're too ill to be at work.
Employers (school boards) were clearly showing that for whatever reason, most of their staff members were only using about half of their allotted sick days in a year. Averages (with all their foibles) by board spanned between nine and 12 days taken a year. Of course, there are always exceptions, individuals who for valid reasons needed two days a month (or more) to be away from work and put themselves in a position to return to work healthy. However, averages are what they are and most boards were giving employees their days and then watching as 40% to 50% of those days became a long-term liability as they got banked.
Though the methods were more than haphazard, the goal of both reducing the number of allotted annual days and eliminating the ability to continue to bank days were not. Budgeting for closer to actual expenses involved in sick days doesn't create a long-term liability. It's always going to be in the employers' interest to limit these long-term liabilities.
I acknowledge banked days do remove a substantial variability from the annual costs of sick days to an employer. Get a year where more sick days are used than what you've budgeted for without a bank and you're caught where you didn't want to be in the first place. Whereas with a bank in place, you know whether used or unused, your overall budget including any transferred liability will be static.
So in ending bankability and lowering the number of days allotted to closer to the average, the move eliminates any further growth in that existing liability. Recognizing the short-term disability use of banked days, the government also now mandates all in the education sector to be covered by short-term disability plans. This is common practice in the private sector (when this benefit is offered) as it provides some, albeit reduced income to someone who has used all their allotted sick days so they can take the time needed to return to work healthy.
What if that's not good enough compared to past practice? Negotiations didn't happen for public school sector employees (and those in Catholic schools represented by OSSTF or ETFO)-- I recognize the ability to do something there is likely lost. But in future negotiations, be honest about what your members and employees need and bargain for that.
Is the short-term disability plan not good enough? Bargain for a better one.
Is the retirement plan not good enough (recognizing teachers have great pensions, support staff not so much)? Then bargain for a better one.
Is there nothing or not enough in the short- or long-term disability plans for critical illnesses
that require long-term treatment and recovery? Then bargain for that coverage.
In the past, all those needs were met by bargaining for more sick days and the ability to bank 'em and have them paid out on departure. That wasn't the way those needs should have been met.
Keep sick days for when people are sick. Bargain for what's needed to cover the rest.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 year in review

As I noted at the end of my summative post for 2011, bargaining would be a huge issue in 2012 and as the year unfolded that proved to be true. It wasn't an exceedingly difficult prediction to make -- the 2008-12 contracts would expire, the government's new tack on fiscal austerity and a Liberal bench finding its way through minority government.
As of midnight yesterday, there was no overall resolution to dozens of contracts between elementary and secondary teachers working in public school boards, not to mention those support staff working across all school boards. not to mention some support staff working in schools (a template agreement was reached with CUPE on Dec. 31). With the new year now well underway, the question many are pondering is whether this minister and government will use the powers in Bill 115 to impose contract conditions on those in the sector who haven't settled or whether she will call any striking folk back to work as permitted under the same bill.
Personally, I'm left scratching my head as to how anyone gets to a resolution in this mess.
The unions are slowly painting themselves into a corner where their actions will only further alienate the public support they will need in order to minimize the impact of this battle on their members. If this province heads into an election in 2013 without some sort of resolution and job action continues, despite all their bravado the unions won't gain enough support to elect a government friendly to their demands.
Even if the contentious portions of Bill 115 are repealed, the government's fiscal goals haven't changed. It will still want to contain the massive liability of banked sick days and retirement gratuities for those school boards that offered them up to this point. It will still seek to eliminate the two-day-a-month sick day provisions and replace it with an amount closer to what people actually take, backed up by a short-term disability program.
It will still also seek to move towards provincial bargaining -- which, frankly, should have happened back in 1998 when the current district school boards were created and educational funding consolidated at the provincial level.
The government doesn't get off scot-free either. 
By poisoning bargaining right from the start, it did make it quite clear it wasn't willing to budge on its goals. It joined the unions in the war of rhetoric, making it easy to get distracted. This wasn't about wages. It's about long-tail liabilities and controlling the sector. Yet, to this day, the government line remains about teachers not wanting to take a pay cut, which is beyond false.
Caught in the middle, as always, are students. Being used as pawns, being abused as those impacted by any job action.
Bargaining would be the defining matter in education for the past 12 months, but that's not to suggest there weren't others. Here are a few to provide some fodder for reflection and discussion:
  • Accommodation: This one does not go away. In 2012, another high-profile attempt -- this time in Peterborough -- to derail the decision made by a local school board. Another failure to understand that ministry reviews and judicial reviews are not appeals and cannot reverse a decision made by a group of local trustees. The rebound in declining enrolment is just getting underway in many districts. Many will point to this rebound as justification for maintaining the status quo-- but to do so is ignorant of what any good demographer will tell you. This rebound (which will take another eight to 10 years to begin hitting secondary schools) will be longer and smaller than previous baby booms. Which means it won't make up for the existing vacancies in our schools that will need to be rationalized sooner than this increase will start hitting high schools. This won't go away in 2013 either-- keep an eye on brewing situations in Kingston, London and maybe even, finally, in Toronto.
  • GSAs: Long forgotten by now due to the labour unrest, this was a defining issue for the first quarter of the year. One of the only bills that received Royal assent before the summer break, Bill 13 was supposed to fix all bullying in our schools. Or something like that, I now mutter facetiously. The government started the year battling some faith-based groups and parents who objected to having gay straight alliances become a mandatory part of schools. Lost in the bigger discussion over what these support groups should be called was whether the name alone makes any real differences in school cultures and how they deal with harassment.
  • See ya later, education premier: In a move that surprised many at the time, Dalton announced in October he will step down as party leader and premier once the Ontario Liberal Party elects a new leader in late January. So comes to an end a nine-year stretch where, for the most part, the government was quite friendly to the sector-- increasing funding by billions as student enrolments dropped by about six per cent. The legacy's being defined by his last few months, but as I argued when the announcement was made, McGuinty's legacy is larger than that. I would think in time, his term will be compared to that of Bill Davis. 
The past year was an exceedingly quiet one for this blog. It's my oft-neglected labour of love, supplemented somewhat by a tumblr feed but a shade of what it was in its first year. I do much of my opining on educational issues over Twitter, which provides an instant-gratification vehicle to express thoughts. I'm not a big new year's resolution person, but I would like to make carving out more time to write in this space a goal for the coming 12 months.
In the meantime, this tiny little blog approaches 100,000 page views as it enters its fourth year in March. Thanks to those who've stopped by and particularly to those who have been longtime readers.