The one-room schoolhouse is a part of Canada’s history. But if you listen to the privateers and most governments, you would think the best schoolhouse is a no-room schoolhouse. Think about it – classroom spending without the classroom. Boards might provide the teachers but corporations would provide the curriculum, buildings, transport and support staff. Imagine how great education would be then.
Across Canada, CUPE members feel the effects of privatizing and cutting education first. From kindergarten to adult education and in between, they’re fighting back – fighting the agenda that wants to use public education for private gain.
Grade A disaster
Like any problem, it’s important to start at the beginning – funding. The public school system is starved for money, with every province looking for ways to reduce spending.
But governments know people believe in the value of public education, so they have tried to disguise their cuts with tricks like “funding envelopes”. They set a fixed amount for each part of the system – so much for “classroom” spending, so much for other spending. If classroom spending isn’t cut, the theory goes, then kids aren’t hurt.
- In Burnaby, B.C., 27 crossing guards with Local 379 lose their jobs this fall, meaning children have to cross the main routes into Vancouver alone. Six lanes of traffic, no guard.
- In contracted out schools in Calgary, children are hit with falling panels from the ceiling because maintenance has been so dramatically cut.
- In London, Ont., members of Local 1156 only clean the desks on which primary students eat once every three days, despite the viruses that flourish in schools. Only in cases where deadly allergies are proven does the board fund daily cleaning.
- In Edmonton, 94 of 103 privately run school buses failed safety tests, pulled off the road by the police for brake failure and lack of service records.
- And in Kawartha, Ont., a volunteer head secretary of a school had access to confidential records. Unlike members of Local 5555, volunteers do not have to pass a criminal record test to work in schools.
In Ontario, the damaging split of classroom and non-classroom spending began with the merging of the school boards and the creation of the Education Improvement Commission with a mandate to encourage contracting out. Pressure from CUPE locals forced a change in this mandate to encourage contracting out only “where appropriate”. But then the second shoe dropped. The province’s new funding formula radically cuts funds to non-classroom expenditures, increasing pressure on boards to contract out all non-instructional services.
Indeed, in the landmark court decision against Ontario’s Bill 160, which stripped boards of the ability to tax and concentrated power in the hands of the province, the judge said the bill had the effect of “cannibalizing” non-classroom services. He’d be hard-pressed to reach any other conclusion after the Tories stripped $53 million from custodial services alone.
Mounting pressure to privatize
In Quebec, too, the school boards have been restructured, as 160 boards merged into 71 this past June. The resulting upheaval has been aggravated by a $200 million cut to spending at the primary and secondary level.
“We’ll have to be especially vigilant to ensure the privateers don’t take advantage of the confusion around the mergers to push contracting out as a response to budget constraints.”Micheline Bourassa, Quebec school board coordinator
B.C. is copying experiments in Alberta and Ontario with school-based budgeting, the new fad, turning each principal into a franchise manager of her or his school. As a result, principals are forced to neglect educational duties and concentrate on cutting costs wherever they can, while schools offer a patchwork quilt of services with no elected person directly responsible for any of the resulting disasters.
With funding cut to the point where layoffs and contracting out are all but forced, boards of education are targetting CUPE members’ work to find the savings. But they’re running into CUPE fightbacks.
Local action pays off
Local 1560 in St. John’s staged a one-day walk-out in February, causing the government to designate them an essential service. So essential were their services that within months, the maintenance staff was laid off, despite 180 years’ accumulated seniority among just nine members. Quick action by the local and the resulting public outcry forced the board to reverse its decision.
“We got a 97 per cent strike mandate – which went up to 98.5 per cent after the government’s actions. Within days, we had a new collective agreement.”Wayne Lucas, Local 1560, St. John’s
Local 520 in Calgary staged a nine-week strike last winter against the Catholic school board over contracting out. The local won the strike, drawing on community support and a letter from the Bishop-elect of Calgary saying contracting out contravened Catholic social teachings. Thefts sky rocketed when scabs were in the schools and locks had to be changed.
“In the end, the contractors were found to be more expensive. The Board retracted its motion and negotiated a five-year no contracting out clause. And it’s added a year to it.”Doug Luellman, Local 474, Edmonton
In Edmonton, Local 474 fought back against a plan to contract out the cleaning of one-third of the schools. It entered into a test comparing five schools maintained by members of the local with five contracted out schools. For 17 months, results were independently monitored. The private companies cost more money, had massive turnover and flunked safety audits. Contracting out is now banned until 2003.
In Winnipeg, Local 1112 successfully forced its school division to reverse a decision on contracting out buses after the local showed it was cheaper for the board to keep them in house.
In London, Ont., privateer ServiceMaster was kept out of the school board after CUPE found $151,000 worth of errors in its proposal – this from people who sell themselves as efficiency experts.
And in Calgary, members of Local 40 were called into some of the 34 contracted out schools to clean the hallways because the private company did such a bad job, parents were complaining. [Private companies usually try to keep main hallways spotless and curbsides well-groomed to give the illusion of a clean school, while cutting corners in hard-to-see places.]
An independent report issued in June also contradicted right-wing rhetoric that contracting out is cheaper. The 34 contracted out schools in Calgary cost more than in-house schools.
New Brunswick workers have protected against contracting out through province-wide bargaining, something that’s been in place since 1970. Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec locals are looking at similar strategies to protect public education in their provinces.
“We’re committed to defeating the funding formula through bargaining. So we’re coordinating our strategy province-wide, creating Save our Schools committees at the same time we’re beginning strike preparations”Charlotte Monardo, Local 5555, Kawartha, Ont.
Short-sighted cuts have become the norm – saving money today, only to pay more later. Regular maintenance is pushed from three years to five, then six, seven… Left in the path of this neglect is rotting wood, fraying carpets and a pile of expensive maintenance jobs that could have been avoided by regular, preventative maintenance.
“The carpet isn’t cleaned every day, but every week. There’s 700 pairs of feet going in there every day – it’s not healthy and there’s more wear and tear.”Jim Squires, Local 1156, London, Ont.
Secretaries are being replaced by voice mail, meaning parents can’t reach children when they need to and no-one phones home to make sure the child who
didn’t show up for school today is safe at home.
In PEI, the government promised more teachers’ assistants to meet demand and kept its promise by hiring more people, but then cut everyone’s hours. CUPE’s campaign forced the government into an embarrassing retreat.
Hey, want to buy a 35-year old school?
Anyone who’s ever owned a car or house knows as big-ticket items get old, they start to break down. That’s probably why few people would accept the offer of a car being bought for them, paying to drive it and being forced to buy it just as it’s about to fall apart.
Unbelievably, this is exactly what’s happening with public schools – big corporations offer to build schools, rent them back to boards and then sell them to the board after 35 years. They’re called Public Private Partnerships (PPP), but Picking the Public’s Pockets is a more accurate term.
“On closer examination, it was a very suspicious process. Schools get run down towards the end of the period and we inherit a mess.”Michael Hennessy, Local 1280, Toronto
In Nova Scotia, PPP (or P3) schools are a major concern. There are already three in the province, with plans for more than 30 by year-end. But despite the cosy relations between the government and private developers, they’ve had difficulty negotiating lease-back arrangements. The developers want to guarantee profits. The government wants to dodge debt. While the lawyers and accountants have made a bundle, the needs of the students and staff have taken a back seat.
Under the latest scheme, called a “gross lease”, the developer owns and operates the school, threatening job security for CUPE members and quality, access and accountability for local communities.
In July, Nova Scotia’s Auditor General, who documents government waste, issued a report critical of the accounting tricks used to keep the cost of PPP schools off the government’s books. On the same day, New Brunswick announced it too had agreed to a PPP school in Fredericton.
Conrad Black won’t tell you, but there are, of course, alternatives to handing over public schools to privateers. Number one is using the surplus budgets almost every government is forecasting to repair some of the damage done to public education over the last decade.
But there have been successful fightbacks against PPP schools – examples that provide hope for Nova Scotia and elsewhere.
“Now, parents see run-down schools with air quality concerns. But we don’t know the ramifications of these new schools.”Terry Goulding, Nova Scotia school board coordinator
A proposed school in Athena, PEI, was scrapped as CUPE activists worked hard with the Western Board of Education to ensure the snake-oil sales job from Nova Scotia was exposed.
In Toronto, the vigilance of Local 1280 allowed them to avert a similar scam. Johnson Controls planned to buy 38 schools from the Catholic board, build four more and then lease all the schools to the board. The local became aware of the plan because they attend all board meetings. By acting early, they were able to go public, exposing the proposal and raising a furore, forcing the board and company to back off.
Lobbying trustees, getting the story out and getting members involved are key. It’s never too early to start educating your community about the dangers.
Charters limit choice
Another form of private education, charter schools, has taken root in
Alberta since 1994, the only province to allow them. Sold under the guise of providing choice, they drain valuable tax dollars from the universal public system into a system run by a small group of usually wealthy people for their own children.
Two charter schools in Alberta recently went belly-up, in Calgary and Mundare. In Calgary, the school’s finances are under investigation by the commercial crimes unit of the police; in Mundare, the school spent too much.
Students’ inability to pay the freight means cutbacks, privatization
If education is the key, it’s one fewer and fewer working Canadians can afford. Federal cuts to provincial transfers, corporate influence on boards of governors and massive increases to user fees have left Canada’s post-secondary system in turmoil. Cuts made in the name of debt reduction have left students with loan debts bigger than their per capita
In Ontario, graduate tuition fees and some professional fees have been completely deregulated – the thin edge of a wider wedge of deregulation and privatization. For some programs, this has meant an increase of up to 144 per cent in one year.
As many CUPE members in the post-secondary sector are students, soaring tuition means workers now owe their employer money at the end of the year. For other CUPE members, an unpredictable funding system based on students’ ability to pay has led to contracting out, layoffs and fewer people with heavier workloads providing less service to students paying more to receive it.
Across Canada, ancillary services (food and custodial services, residences, printing, bookstores, etc.) are being offered up to the private sector as universities and colleges scramble to cut costs.
At the University of British Columbia, a separate corporation, UBC Inc., was formed to act as employer of ancillary service workers in an attempt to undermine their bargaining victories. This plan was thwarted when the government intervened to ensure that UBC’s workers would still be employees of the university proper.
University boards of governors, often with few worker or student representatives and many corporate members, are taking a lead role in making academic decisions. At Carleton University in Ottawa, nine programs were closed with no evidence of cost savings. The university president eventually admitted the language and literature programs weren’t part of the university’s new image.
Increasingly, students are turning to CUPE to help wages keep up with spiralling costs. From Halifax to Victoria, student workers have joined CUPE to give themselves another weapon in fighting back.
In B.C. and Ontario, university and college workers have formed common fronts and province-wide committees to jointly attack their common enemy.
At Carleton, the tactics used to play students, staff and faculty off against each other were countered when seven CUPE locals joined with faculty and student associations in a campus referendum on four issues of common concern. The referendum sent a clear message that staffing levels, academic programs and tuition hikes are not separate issues.
“The infrastructure in B.C. is becoming unbearable. Staff levels are not keeping up [to student growth] and we’re being overworked.”Doug Sprenger, Local 951, Victoria
Even in B.C., where funding and tuition are frozen, CUPE locals have to work hard to ensure budgets aren’t cut and pay equity is implemented. A massive influx of students has meant increased workloads yet the increased funding to provide needed services isn’t there.
Back to school for non-traditional students
In B.C., the college system is a hybrid, offering early-year university courses, vocational training and adult education. But you’d better be sure you’re going to the right institution because some of B.C.’s 1,500 private trainers are a nightmare.
Students show up at a trainer that’s gone out of business, taking their fees with it. Credits aren’t recognized at public institutions. Fees are higher, standards are lower and service is poorer. In an appalling example of private education, Human Resources and Development Canada sold lists of EI recipients to a private trainer in Vancouver to use for direct marketing.
CUPE is taking an active role in studying the effects of lower federal transfers for education in B.C., fighting hard to get a seat on an important board that’s examining solutions.
Meanwhile, funding for the college system isn’t keeping pace with inflation. There are more part-time and casual jobs. Huge new administrative tasks ordered by the province, such as tracking job placement rates, have to be implemented with existing resources. There’s no word yet on whether future funding to these programs will be tied to placement rates.
“Workloads are burgeoning. They’re absolutely massive. People are feeling crushed by volume.” Gail Miller, Local 3479, Courtney, B.C.
In Ontario communities, adult education is under the gun as continuing education’s needs are played off against children’s needs. With property tax no longer funding important courses such as English as a Second Language instruction and high school credits for adults, these programs are facing deep cuts. Instructors in Local 4400 must now rely on Mike Harris’ commitment to providing service to new Canadians and vulnerable adults, things on which he has a poor track record.
With the Tories scrambling to work out the details of their new funding structure, the level of the cuts still isn’t known. But there’s one positive by-product of the changes. In the Toronto Public School Board, a huge new CUPE local now represents more than 13,000 members working in all aspects of education. This local can now take a holistic approach to education, something that has to include adults.
As the school year begins, it’s clear that CUPE members – working with students, parents and community allies – have a huge challenge ahead of them. It’s not just our jobs but the future of public education that’s at stake.