Alberta's teachers and the provincial government have scheduled a flurry of meetings this week to reconcile a higher than anticipated pay raise and a looming deficit.
The five-year collective agreement between the province and the Alberta Teachers' Association, negotiated in 2007, pegs pay raises to an earnings index compiled by Statistics Canada.
The basis for teachers' 2009-10 salary increases followed the Alberta Average Weekly Earnings index, which was calculated at 4.85 per cent for the 2008-09 year.
But on March 31, Statistics Canada changed the method of calculating the index — which resulted in the yearly salary increase coming in at 5.99 per cent.
The change means the Alberta government needs to find an extra $23 million to cover the unexpected one per cent increase — when the provincial finance minister is anticipated to announce a $6.9-billion deficit on Wednesday.
'The province's general fiscal situation is beyond the power of Alberta teachers' influence.' —Dennis Theobold, Alberta Teachers' Association
"The [education] minister has indicated to us that the budgets reflected the [original index] amount, and at this point they do not have the dollars to increase that," said Heather Welwood, president of the Alberta School Boards Association.
Dennis Theobold, a spokesman for the Alberta Teachers' Association, said the province should honour its commitment.
"The province's general fiscal situation is beyond the power of Alberta teachers' influence," he told CBC News on Tuesday.
"We, for example, didn't decide that we were going to forgo an increase in liquor taxes that would have paid for the cost of this increase four times over."
Theobold said it may fall upon school boards to cover the extra cost, with pay raises set to kick in on Sept. 1, but that could force cuts to programs or staff.
Teachers willing to go to arbitration
Alberta Liberal education critic Harry Chase said the education minister should not break the five-year contract.
"Not only is it a betrayal, but it's a unilateral decision on the minister's behalf before, I gather, the actual percentages were discussed. It was like he tossed a coin and said, 'Well, I'll go with the cheaper one because we're in a recessionary period,'" said Chase.
"For him to break that part of a five-year agreement does not bode well for any future negotiations either with school boards or teachers' associations."
Theobold said teachers will go to arbitration if necessary to hold the government to the higher figure.
More meetings are scheduled over the next few days to try to find a solution.