EDMONTON - Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson says he will put pen to paper to back up the government's funding promises if it will help conclude a new provincewide contract deal for teachers.
Johnson said his department will begin sending out so-called "comfort letters" to school boards concerned about whether the government will put in place funding for teacher salary hikes set to kick in for the final year of a proposed four-year contract.
"That's something we've always said all the way along is we're going to fund the raises that we negotiate," Johnson told reporters Thursday.
"They (the boards) asked for that in writing, and that was going to give them comfort, so we said, 'No problem.'"
Johnson is facing pushback from some school boards on the deal announced last Friday with the Alberta Teachers Association.
The public school boards in Edmonton and Calgary have rejected it, as has the Catholic school district in Lethbridge, and public schools in Red Deer.
Johnson, however, has pointed out another 20 boards — including the Catholic schools in Edmonton and Calgary — have agreed to it.
Johnson said he knew from the start that they wouldn't get the approval of all 62 boards, but said he will work board-by-board if necessary to allay concerns unique to each local.
He said if that didn't work there will be another plan, including imposing a deal.
"We've always said that will be a last resort," said Johnson.
"There will be an agreement in place. We're not going to let classrooms be affected."
Teachers and boards are currently assessing and voting on the deal, which affects 40,000 teachers.
Alberta has said an austerity budget this year means it has no money for salary hikes. The proposed deal, which the executive of the ATA is urging its member locals to vote for, allows for no salary hikes in each of the next three years.
There would be a two per cent hike in the fourth year, along with a cash payout equivalent to one per cent of salary.
The deal also addresses workload issues and gives teachers recourse if they have complaints about workload or professional development.
Johnson's case received a boost Thursday when the umbrella organization for the school boards, the Alberta School Boards Association, announced it will not weigh in on the issue but instead, given the variables of the deal, leave the matter to the local boards.
Johnson said that's good news.
"Essentially what that tells me is the majority of the boards support it," he said. "There's a minority of the boards that have concerns with it. We just have to seek out those boards and work with them to overcome their objections."
Opposition critics, however, said Johnson should have brought the school boards in when the deal was finalized last week.
"It's very disappointing that when this deal was being negotiated that school boards seem to have been left out of the mix," said Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith.
"If they had looped them in and understood the kind of impact the decision and the contract being offered would have on them, they might have been able to smooth through some of those decisions."
NDP critic Dave Eggen agreed.
"The proposed teachers' deal is a slap in the face to the autonomy of local government. School boards were told after the deal was made, and now they’re being asked to sign on the dotted line."
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said without public school boards in Edmonton and Calgary onside, the process lacks legitimacy.
"(The boards) who have to deliver education to the majority of Alberta's kids are not happy with the agreement. What's even more concerning is the (education) minister is going to be a bully and make them accept an order," said Sherman.
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