As conversation in the public continues around the potential of a teachers strike it is important to speak to all Nova Scotians, especially students, parents and teachers and all who will be impacted by such a strike. As a retired teacher I continue to be committed to students in the classroom. It is what motivated me to join the profession and become a classroom teacher. It is what continues to influence the decisions I make as Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
Since forming government in October 2013, I have recognized the importance of listening to teachers who are the experts in the field. Their concerns have driven many of the decisions our government has made in the public school. Some of my most meaningful conversations have been with teachers in a professional and mutually respectful meeting…no cameras…no reporters…just teachers who care about their students. Teachers have told me they were concerned about class size. We responded with reducing class size in primary to grade 6 and will continue into junior and high school.Teachers have told me the curriculum was too broad with too many student outcomes expected. We responded by bringing classroom teachers together with Department of Education and Early Childhood staff, we streamlined the curriculum to one which teachers believed would be more manageable. Teachers told me they needed help responding to students with anxiety and stress related issues. We responding by providing funding to hire mental health clinicians to advise and support teachers.
Do we have more to do to improve the classrooms in this province…absolutely. That is why I continue to ask teachers to share their specific concerns and why I have visited classrooms to better understand those concerns. I have also asked teachers to help with the solutions. There is no question, the classrooms today have many complexities and teachers need help in responding to them.
Teachers are at the heart of the success of our students. They bring dedication and expertise to their work. Students present with a broad range of abilities, behavioral challenges and social issues. Teachers are often asked to respond to individual student needs for which they feel inadequate and which are beyond their training. That is why the response must be a collective one that includes health care professionals, social workers and mental health clinicians.
Teachers also need to be paid a reasonable and fair wage. The current average salary for teachers is $76,000. On two separate occasions, the negotiating teams for both government and the NSTU reached tentative agreements. Those tentative agreements included a wage pattern that the union brought to the table. It was supported by the union leadership and accepted by the government. That wage pattern strikes a balance with what Nova Scotians can afford to pay. That wage pattern is a 3 percent increase over 4 years and has already been accepted by 9 other collective bargaining units and physicians. However, those tentative agreements were not accepted by teachers even though their leadership recommended they accept.
Teachers have now voted to strike. As a government and as the Minister, we want to protect students and parents from this disruption to their school year. Therefore I recalled the conciliator in early November to bring both sides together again. As recently as Friday, November 25, teachers presented a new wage pattern, this time asking for a minimum of 8 percent over 4 years. This translates into an additional $140 million dollars over the life of the contract and is well beyond the ability of the Province to pay.
Each year since we formed government, the funding for Education and students has increased. We will continue to invest in programs and supports in the classroom. Our other choice is to do as the previous NDP government did which was to reduce funding for students and programs and to increase wages for teachers by 7.5 percent for the last three years. That is not the choice of our Liberal government.
As the Minister, I continue to welcome input from teachers. However, the Union has postponed participation in meetings that are responding to the very concerns that teachers have raised. As the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, as your MLA for Colchester North and as a teacher, I will continue to be motivated by students and I invite the Union to join with me as we continue to bring about improvements in our public school system.
Karen Casey, MLA