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Opening of public classes strikes out in Abbotsford

Mediation fails, teachers’ union and government cast blame
Sandy Hill elementary school teacher Kevin Chesney and a colleague picket outside school Tuesday morning.

Tyler OLSEN and Alex BUTLER

Binders remained closed and new shoes were left unscuffed as the ongoing teachers’ strike forced the cancellation of the first day of classes at public schools across Abbotsford.

With exploratory negotiations having broke down Saturday between the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the province, teachers picketed local schools Tuesday.

While the province says the BCTF’s demands are unaffordable, local teachers say they’re sacrificing their wages to demand smaller classes for students.

“I’m doing this for my kids,” said Yale secondary math teacher Tom van Hunenstijn. “It’s a long-term view that has a short-term cost.”

Robert Bateman secondary science teacher Sarah Bacon echoed those thoughts.

“We’re giving up our pay to stand up for kids,” she said.

Teachers said the ongoing strike cast a pall over recent weeks, as the normal excitement for the coming school year was replaced with uncertainty and anger.

“Usually we’re all pretty excited coming back, and this year just didn’t have that same feeling,” said Sandy Hill elementary physical education teacher Kevin Chesney. “I’d rather be in school, but the government sees it a different way.”

There had been optimism Friday evening as both sides sat down for long talks with mediator Vince Ready. But he abandoned the negotiations the next day, declaring that the two sides were still too far apart for mediation to be productive.

While Ready said the teachers and the province were too far apart  on both wages and benefits, BCTF president Jim Iker said the two sides were close 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.

Even more problematic are differing views on class size and composition and a legal victory by the BCTF in B.C. Supreme Court.

The union – and picketing Abbotsford teachers – cited the government’s “E80” clause as a key sticking point. The teachers say the clause would erase the union’s legal victories on class size and composition and circumvent any future appeal court ruling in teachers’ favour.

“B.C. teachers will not bargain away everything that the B.C. Supreme Court has already awarded us and we will not jeopardize any future court decision,” Iker said. “The government must back off that unreasonable request and invest money in the system now.”

Fassbender, however, has placed the blame on the teachers’ union and its leaders.

“Negotiating a settlement requires union leaders to stand in front of their members and explain what has been achieved at the bargaining table,” he said. “I worry the BCTF leadership is actually counting on government to legislate an end to this strike so they can avoid having a difficult conversation with their members about what is realistic and achievable.”

On Monday, the Abbotsford school district superintendent issued a notice declaring local schools “closed for instruction.”

Child care and StrongStart programs at schools were open, however.

The government has offered $40 a day to parents of students under the age of 13 to subsidize child care during the strike. Payments will take place at the end of the strike and consume all the $12 million per day the government expects to save during the work stoppage. The subsidy has led teachers to accuse the government of undermining public education. And it hasn’t been enough to ease the worries of many parents.

A small group of parents and children took part in a rally outside of Abbotsford South MLA Darryl Plecas’ office Tuesday morning.

“I felt that it was important for parents at a local level to have a voice,” said organizer David Cusick, who has a seven-year-old daughter in the public system.

Cusick said he wants to see the teachers’ class size and composition requests met and “we want to see them paid competitively with other provinces.”

Cusick said it’s unfortunate his daughter, Sydney, cannot start school on time, but that her friends and classmates have needs that currently aren’t being met in the classroom.

Corinne Martens, who has children in Grades 4 and 9, said she is frustrated by the ongoing labour dispute, but supports teachers.

“I support quality public education and I feel that it is being compromised and it is at-risk right now.”

While public schools remain closed, independent schools opened as planned Tuesday.

It was “business as usual” at Abbotsford Christian School (ACS), according to executive director Julius Siebenga, but the school was still seeing the effects of the strike.

“We’ve been busier than we ever have at this time of year from a new enrolment standpoint,” Siebenga said. Just last week, ACS’s middle school signed up 10 new families, a figure that is far from normal at this time of year.

(Brynn Robertson, 6, and Sydney Cusick, 7, and her father Dave Cusick, stand outside MLA Darryl Plecas’ office on Tuesday, to show support for striking teachers.)

  • In March, teachers voted 89 per cent in favour of job action

  • Rotating strikes began the week of May 26 as part of escalating job action

  • A full-scale walk-out started on June 17  after more than 33,000 BCTF members voted, with 86 per cent in favour of a full-scale walkout

  • In 2002, the Liberal government removed class size and support staff rules from the BCTF contract.

Until then, the limits were 20 for kindergarten, 22 for Grades 1 to 3, and 30 for Grades 4 to 12. They increased to 22, 24 and no limit, but with a district-wide average of 30 students per class.

In a B.C. Supreme Court ruling in 2011, the government was given a year to remove the 2002 legislation and negotiate class size and specialist teacher support as a working condition for teachers. Early this year, a second ruling ordered the government to pay $2 million in damages to the BCTF.

The B.C. government has appealed the ruling ordering it to return to 2002 classroom rules.

  • The province has offered a $75-million Learning Improvement Fund to help address special needs

  • $1,200 signing bonus has been taken off the table by the government, union seeking $5,000

  • Government is offering parents $40 a day for each child who is a public school student under 13

  • BCTF says it has trimmed demands by $125 million over the weekend, but the province claims the two sides still more than $300 million apart