Now that he's on the verge of taking over one of the most powerful unions in B.C., Jim Iker is not about to forget his small town northern B.C. roots.
Acclaimed as president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation on Monday, Iker, a Burns Lake-area teacher, will move up from his current role as first vice-president on July 1 when the contract of current BCTF president Susan Lambert expires.
"It's a huge responsibility representing 41,000 teachers across this province and taking the decisions they make and advocating on behalf of public education and on behalf of our students," said Iker.
"Our students are the most important future resource in this province and we need to make sure our schools are properly funded and we have the conditions in place for teachers to teach and for students to learn."
Iker divides his time between Vancouver, where the BCTF executive offices are located, and the rural home in Topley he shares with his wife Cheryl, a teacher at Decker Lake elementary school in Burns Lake.
The 60-year-old Welland, Ont., native moved west in 1977 to become a primary school teacher at the now-closed Topley elementary school. He's also served as counsellor, kindergarten teacher and teaching specialist, working one-on-one with special needs students. He's been on leave from his teaching duties since he started working full-time for the BCTF executive in 2007. Before he joined as a member-at-large in 1999, he served as the BCTF's Burns Lake local president.
"I got hired because I was a male primary teacher and that's what they were looking for," said Iker.
"It just shows the nature of our organization that a classroom teacher from a small rural area in the north has the support of the members across the province to become the president of the BCTF. It's an honour and privilege to me and I'm looking forward to it."
Iker is convinced the Liberal government is not adequately funding the public school system. He points to Statistics Canada figures that show the estimated $8,493 per student being spent in 2012-13, is about $1,000 less per pupil than the Canadian average. He also says B.C. has the worst student-to-teacher ratio in the country and needs to hire more teachers.
"Every province has experienced good times and some not-so-good times in terms of the economic climate but they've managed to find ways to put more funding and more resources into the system for their students and we expect that of our government," Iker said. "To be approximately $1,000 less in per pupil funding is just not acceptable. They just have no idea what the classroom realities are and the conditions our members are working in and our students are learning in."
A group of former BCTF presidents is endorsing an NDP government in a pamphlet to be distributed to teachers. Pro-union NDP leader Adrian Dix has promised free collective bargaining for the BCTF and an increased budget to address class size and composition issues. Regardless of the outcome of the May 14 provincial election, Iker says it's incumbent on the government to show it values public education enough to increase the annual budget. The BCTF has stated B.C. schools need an additional $300 million annually to adequately meet the needs of students.
"It's not about whether it's a pro-union government or not, what it is about is having a government that believes in public education and respects the work we do," said Iker. "It's been 12 years of this government and the underfunding, the cuts, the unconstitutional legislation. They've passed approximately 20 bills in the last decade and none of those bills have helped improve services and resources for students."
Contract talks between the BCTF and the B.C. Public School Employers' Association have been ongoing with a facilitator, Mark Brown, also at the table. For the first time in a decade, teachers are able to bargain on class sizes and teacher staffing ratios.
"We have a different climate right now," said Iker, the BCTF's chief negotiator. "I'm a very optimistic person by nature and our hope is we will negotiate an agreement by the end of June, but we also know that for any successful round of bargaining there has to be resources put to the table and you need a will on both sides to bargain a collective agreement that's fair for our members and has better supports for students."
The BCTF has seen its own finances significantly drained by court challenges dating back to 2002, when it launched an action in B.C. Supreme Court. In 2011, the court declared the government acted unconstitutionally by stripping class size and class composition provisions. The union contends the language that was declared unconstitutional was written back into Bill 22 last year, which ended the teachers' strike and imposed a contract, and will argue that point in Supreme Court in September.
Also at the BCTF's annual general meeting this week in Vancouver, Glen Hansman was acclaimed to take over Iker's position as first vice-president. Teri Mooring, president of the Quesnel District Teachers' Association, was voted in to the executive as second vice-president.