Barry Coultter and Jeff Nagel
Pickets were brandished instead of pencils at public schools Tuesday after an attempt at mediated talks to resolve the teachers strike collapsed over the weekend, ending hopes classes could start on schedule.
School district administrators warned parents of children requiring alternate child care to plan for a lengthy shutdown of schools and to not assume the labour dispute will be resolved in a matter of days.
Lynn Hauptman, Superintendent of School District 5 (Southeast Kootenay, addressed parents in a letter posted on the district’s website.
“Along with parents and students, we began this week cautiously optimistic that the two parties would achieve a settlement in time for school to open on Thursday,” she wrote.
“With the involvement of a skilled mediator, we were encouraged that we would see a long awaited breakthrough.”
Veteran mediator Vince Ready walked away from the exploratory negotiations Saturday, saying the two sides were at “an impasse” and simply too far apart – particularly on wages and benefits – for mediation to be productive.
“This is a very disappointing time for everyone and in particular for our students who are eager to begin their classes. This week, administrators will be in schools should you have any questions, but they will be unable to offer any supervision or instruction. At this time we are unsure if classes will resume later this week,” Hauptman wrote.
The School District will continue to provide updates and post information on its website (sd5.bc.ca).
“We very much appreciate that this labour dispute has created uncertainty, frustration and inconvenience for everyone. I look forward to be able to welcome everyone back to school,” she added.
Hauptman thanked all the parents for “your continued patience during this very difficult time.”
School District 6 (Rocky Mountain) said on its website that when it is able to confirm the start date for students, that information will be posted on the website (sd6.bc.ca).
On Tuesday, teachers and supporters held a rally starting in Rotary Park in downtown Cranbrook, which proceeded down 11th Avenue to MLA Bill Bennett’s office, and then out to the strip. Cranbrook and District Teachers Association President Shelly Balfour told the assembled crowd that “this is not about getting a raise, this is about democracy in B.C.”
Balfour also suggested that the government “stop with the court cases, put money into education, and let’s get going.”
B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker said the two sides are just one per cent apart on wages.
The government offer is seven per cent over six years, while the union wants eight per cent over five.
But Education Minister Peter Fassbender said the BCTF demand is still nearly twice what other public sector unions have settled for once benefit demands are included.
The province has also taken a $1,200 signing bonus off the table, while the union still wants $5,000, which makes up a big chunk of what the government says is a $300-million gulf between the positions,
The province has offered a $75-million Learning Improvement Fund to help address special needs but the union wants much more for special needs and to settle grievances.
Another challenge to a negotiated settlement remains the government’s pending appeal of a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that it violated the union’s bargaining rights in 2002 when it stripped provisions on class size and support.
Iker claimed the BCTF has reduced its demands by $125 million, including a cut in the size of its proposed fund to settle grievances, while the government offered no meaningful moves in return and “squandered” the chance at a deal.