IN FOCUS— PEC: Boring as dirt, important as heck

October 10, 2017
Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
PEC chambers at Barnett House, viewed here from the chair of district representative Robert Twerdoclib, is the site of at least eight two-day meetings each year, during which the elected members make decisions about the ATA’s budgets, policies and strategic direction.
Welcome to In Focus, a new ongoing series that will shine a spotlight on the operation and programs of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. This first instalment is focused on the workings of Provincial Executive Council, or PEC.

 

Elected reps log long hours in the name of guiding the teaching profession

When word got out around Barnett House that I was going to observe a meeting of Provincial Executive Council (PEC), I started receiving words of pity as if I was planning to spend the day at a life insurance convention.

You see, the PEC meetings that occur at least eight times a year at Barnett House have a reputation for being a bit dull — actually, the phrase “boring as dirt” comes to mind. After all, each of these meetings is a solid two days of reports and discussions.

But I wasn’t fazed. During several years as a reporter at a community newspaper, I’d survived dozens of meetings of school boards and municipal councils, so I wasn’t afraid of enduring a little bit of PEC ennui for the sake of a story.

What the heck is PEC?

The setting for PEC meetings is typical of many council chambers. At the end of a hallway on the second floor of Barnett House is a set of double doors leading to a boardroom that contains a tasteful amount of wood panelling and abstract paintings, a pyramid-shaped skylight that draws the eye upward and a heavy oak table that’s shaped like an enclosed arch. Along the table’s perimeter are name signs and microphones. A gavel rests where the president sits.

The room is fringed with smaller tables for executive staff.

The council itself comprises 15 district representatives (DRs) — teachers who are elected by their colleagues in geographic regions throughout the province. Each of these individuals represents several ATA locals. Also sitting on Council are two vice-presidents and a president who are elected by all eligible ATA members. Rounding out the roster is the past president and the executive secretary, who is a non-voting member.

When the meeting begins, it’s clear that Robert’s Rules are strictly followed. There’s a defined agenda, and members are addressed by formal title and last name.

“The process is formal and there’s a solemnity to it because we want people to be acutely aware of the seriousness of the work,” explained ATA president Greg Jeffery in an interview. “We are the governing body of the Alberta Teachers’ Association and that’s a huge responsibility.”

PEC’s role is much like that of any other board: to provide governance by making decisions affecting the budgets, policies and strategic direction of the ATA. Staff are there to provide their expertise when called upon so PEC members can make informed decisions.

While some boards run afoul of the line between governance and management, PEC and ATA staff have established a solid working relationship that, for the most part, respects each other’s boundaries, said Executive Secretary Gordon Thomas.

“Governors, you want them to have nose in, hands off,” he said. “For me, the most important thing that happens in the council chamber is that [PEC] will give me and my staff colleagues political direction.”

The agenda for each PEC meeting includes reports to PEC from the ATA’s various program areas, as well as any discipline reports that have arisen since the previous meeting. DRs each get a turn to report on the issues they’re hearing about from the teachers they represent. Decisions that PEC members debate and vote on originate as recommendations from staff, usually the executive secretary, or as motions from PEC members themselves.

At the end of the two days everyone returns home exhausted. Meanwhile, on the next business day, Barnett House staff compile action sheets that break down each PEC decision into specific tasks for specific staff members.

Learning the ropes

PEC meetings involve hundreds of pages of reports and are a large part of the roles of district representatives, vice-presidents and the president, but these elected officials are also very busy in between these meetings.

The presidency is a full-time position with an office at Barnett House. The role involves being the official spokesperson for the Association and its chief representative in dealings with provincial and national education stakeholders such as the Alberta government and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. The president is the chair of PEC and the Teacher Salary Qualifications Board, and also provides ongoing support to district representatives.

The two vice-presidents alternate months as deputy president and serve on a number of committees, specifically chairing either the Association’s finance or its resolutions committee.

District representatives serve on several committees and Association subgroups as well, while also attending various meetings of the locals in their districts. This typically translates into three or four local meetings per week.

“The biggest challenge has been just the sheer amount of travel,” says Peter MacKay, a new DR who represents the North West district, which has seven locals that are spread out from Grande Prairie to Fort Vermilion.

It takes several years for new DRs to catch on to the routine and the change in priorities that comes from moving from the local to the provincial level, says Central region DR Jere Geiger, the longest serving PEC member, with 21 years of service. Another adjustment is the fact that there’s not much of a safety net for PEC.
“At the local level someone — the mother ship — is still looking over you and making sure that you’re safe,” Geiger said. “Once you get to this level there’s not a lot of others looking after you, so you better get it right the first time.”

As teacher-politicians, PEC members have been known to generate friction on occasion, which can also be an adjustment for new members.

“Some of the clashes of personalities I hadn’t expected, but I’ve come to respect that the differing views of council members are often very helpful for us because it’s representative of what’s actually out there in the field,” said President Jeffery, referring to his election as a DR 14 years ago.

Like other governing bodies, PEC operates under the premise that once a decision is made, all PEC members are expected to support the decision, regardless of the views they expressed during the debate or how they voted.

“It’s important that everyone’s views be heard, whether they’re conflicting or not, but council deals with that in council chambers,” Jeffery said. “When PEC makes a decision, we go out of the room with one voice, we carry the message of Provincial Executive Council.”

Political credibility

Except for the president, all elected PEC members are still active teachers, with DRs and VPs eligible for up to half-time release to fulfill their ATA duties.

“It’s still a surprise to many teachers that district representatives actually teach half-time. Many teachers assume that we have an office in Edmonton,” Geiger said.

“Being in the school is an important part of your job [as DR],” he continued. “You have to have a feeling for what everybody else is going through.”

Having elected members who are in touch with the classroom is key to the ATA’s political credibility. It means that when an education minister visits a PEC meeting, which occurs on occasion, the stories he hears are coming directly from Alberta classrooms.

“We will sometimes criticize senior administration in a school jurisdiction about being out of touch with the classroom because they haven’t taught actively as a classroom teacher for X number of years,” Jeffery said. “We don’t want to have our council considered in the same light.”

Fully engaged

Barnett House often rings with the lore of past PEC debates over the merits of butter versus margarine in the cafeteria or staff officers being rebuked for projects that missed the mark. As a newsperson looking for a story, I was hoping to witness such drama. Perhaps there would even be an overturned table or a thrown shoe. It didn’t happen. It was all collegial discussion.

Quite frankly, much of the meeting was boring as dirt — to me, the layman reporter — but it was clearly not boring to the 20 teachers sitting around the big table. From my perch on the periphery, it was plainly evident that these individuals were fully engaged in their roles at the epicentre of decision-making for the teaching profession in Alberta.

It was also clear that the members were there to present the views and concerns of the teachers they represent. I left with a clear sense of the push-button issues from all around the province, issues like assignable time and the new Classroom Improvement Fund, to name just two of many.

And I also saw that PEC’s actions were aligned with a succinct description that President Jeffery provided to me.“Provincial Executive Council is acting in
the best interests of all Alberta teachers.” ❚