As Alberta prepares to negotiate a new contract with teachers, Education Minister David Eggen isn't indicating exactly what he'll be seeking on the contentious issue of salaries, other than to say it must be both fair to teachers and affordable to taxpayers.

"The negotiations that I'm entering into will probably set the tone for many other public-service negotiations that will take place in the coming weeks and months and years," Eggen said.

"And so, I feel the full weight of that responsibility … of setting a tone that is affordable for this province during this difficult economic time."

Unlike in past negotiations, the province now sits directly at the bargaining table when it comes to "big-ticket" items like salaries, Eggen noted.

Legislation passed in December changed the bargaining process to include the Alberta government, which is the main funder of education.

Under the old system, Alberta's 61 school boards negotiated 61 contracts with local branches of the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA).

Boards will continue to negotiate their own deals with ATA locals on smaller issues, but the government will have more power to set more consistent policies on things like salaries and other province-wide issues.

"I think that's a fairly strong signal that we have the means to deliver a fair deal for our teaching professionals but we have a very strong mechanism by which we can deliver an affordable deal for all Albertans as well," Eggen said.

Frank Bruseker, president of Calgary Public Teachers Local No. 38, said teachers in the last round of negotiations accepted no raises over the past three years and then a two-per-cent raise in the current year of their contract, "in exchange for, ideally, a reduction in workload."

Frank Bruseker

Frank Bruseker, president of the Calgary Public Teachers Local No. 38, said teachers have effectively seen their wages decline in "real dollars" over the four-year life of the previous contract. (CBC)

"I'm not sure teachers would say they've seen much reduction in the workload," he said.

Bruseker said it's too early to say exactly what teachers will be seeking in terms of salary increases in the next contract but noted they've effectively taken wage cuts, in terms of "real dollars," under the previous deal.

"With inflation continuing to go up and our salaries being frozen for three years, in essence that works like a cut," he said.

Teachers can't be 'immune' to cuts: CTF

Given Alberta's dire economic situation and looming deficit of more than $10 billion, Paige MacPherson with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said freezing teacher salaries isn't enough.

"We need to have a cut," she said.

"There needs to be some reductions in spending across the board in Alberta and, really, teachers can't be immune to that."

Alberta already has the highest-paid teachers of all provinces, she noted, with those at the top end of the salary range earning about $100,000 a year.

"Times are tough right now," MacPherson said. "It's time for everybody to collectively tighten their belts, together."

Class sizes an issue, too

The ATA is currently waiting for more direction from teachers on precisely how they'd like to see negotiations proceed, but spokesman Jonathan Teghtmeyer said class sizes will also factor into the discussion in some capacity.

"Teachers are concerned about their conditions of practice and the learning conditions in classrooms — that's definitely something that we're going to have to discuss," he said.

"The number of teachers we have just simply hasn't kept up with the growth in student numbers."

Fifty-six of Alberta's 61 school boards have class-size averages that exceed provincial guidelines, Teghtmeyer said.

The current collective agreements with teachers expire on Aug. 31.