06/20/2013 05:58 EDT | Updated 08/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Peter Fassbender: BC Teachers Contract Deal A Top Priority

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's new education minister says he's optimistic he can overcome a decades-long, toxic relationship with the province's teachers by discussing a new "road map" next week that will guide the parties towards a better, long-term relationship.

But Peter Fassbender said he also reminded the B.C. Teachers' Federation, B.C. School Trustees Association, and B.C. Public School Employers' Association during a meeting Thursday that the Liberals received a mandate during the recent election to negotiate a 10-year collective agreement.

The teachers' federation has already slammed those plans, but Fassbender remained diplomatic, calling incoming union president Jim Iker of Burns Lake, B.C., "a nice man" with whom the minister said he hopes to forge a new, positive relationship.

The current president Susan Lambert steps down at the end of the 2013 school year.

"I'm quite pleased that I think we can move ahead in a positive way," said Fassbender. "I said to the B.C. Teachers Federation that I want to work with them in a sense of collaboration and co-operation.

"It doesn't mean we're always going agree on every detail, but I think that we can be respectful of each other's roles, work together to find positive solutions for the students, because that's why we're there. This is about the children in the system."

The current collective agreement with teachers expires this month and Fassbender said he hopes that this week, the parties can wrap up the "non-substantive" issues still being discussed before sitting down to discuss the new road map.

Those talks, which will coincide with the opening of the legislature for the summer sessions, will define the roles of the parties, especially the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, an organization that negotiates with teachers on behalf of the province's 60 public-school boards, said Fassbender.

Fassbender said he wants to create a new framework so teachers and the province can negotiate face to face, a change that may require a redefinition of some responsibilities.

He said he is not imposing any deadlines, nor is he speculating on the duration of the talks, noting he wants to negotiate in good faith.

Fassbender said he told the teachers he understands they want to speak directly to the government.

He added trustees have "clear mandates" at the local level and the province wants to work with them, noting the government may give some issues to local boards.

The teachers federation urged Fassbender not to break off current talks and impose a 10-year contract with "no new money."

"Constructive negotiations have already been taking place throughout the spring and are ongoing even today. We need a fair deal for teachers and better support for kids," Lambert said in a statement.

She dismissed a new bargaining structure, saying all the relevant parties are now at the table and the current talks have been the "most constructive" in years.

"What we really need is for government to come to the table with the resources and political will to reach a negotiated agreement, one that will guarantee support for all students when they need it," she said.

Plans for a 10-year contract were announced by Premier Christy Clark and former education minister Don McRae in January, and at the time, Clark said such a deal would prevent labour acrimony from spilling into classrooms and allow a Grade 2 student to graduate from high school without having to deal with labour disruptions.

Clark said the deal would allow teachers to strike and would index their salary to the same increases given to nurses, college faculty and other public-sector employees.

Yet Lambert immediately dismissed the plans at the time, saying they were not good for students or teachers.

Teresa Rezansoff, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, said Thursday she left her meeting with Fassbender encouraged that he understands the expectations of trustees and the role they play in B.C. communities.

"The minister has committed to frequent and regular communication with us. He was very clear in saying that he wants to work closely with BCSTA," she said.

Conflict between the teachers' federation and government is nothing new.

In May, the province's teachers won a decision in the B.C. Appeal Court, allowing them to express their political opinions through buttons and posters in schools.

A few months earlier at the federation's annual conference in Vancouver, Lambert suggested Clark's time as premier was ending. Teachers reacted with a standing ovation.

"You know, I may be a lame duck,'' Lambert said during the March meeting. "But I think Christy's goose is cooked.''

In 2012, the federation won a 10-year legal battle over issues like class size.

At the start of the 2011-2012 academic year, teachers began job action and refused to write report cards, supervise students or take part in extra-curricular activities, eventually launching a three-day walkout.

The dispute largely focused on wages, with teachers initially asking for a 15 per cent pay increase, although there were other issues such as class size and class composition.

After months of conflict, the government passed the Education Improvement Act in March 2012, banning teachers from any further walkouts, forcing them to resume their normal duties, imposing a six-month cooling off period and sending the months-long contract dispute to a mediator.

The federation announced in June its members voted 75 per cent in favour of a new contract, but turnout was just 52 per cent.

The federation recommended teachers vote in favour of the contract, but the union complained it only agreed to the deal because the province would have otherwise legislated a new contract.

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