Public school students in B.C. won't return to class next week, unless the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the province can avert a full-scale strike by reaching an agreement over the weekend — something both sides are committed to trying to achieve.
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Union president Jim Iker said Thursday the BCTF has served the required 72 hours of strike notice for a full-scale strike beginning Tuesday after the province's 41,000 teachers voted 86 per cent earlier this week in favour of escalating job action.
He also confirmed the BCTF will designate Monday as a study session day throughout the province, with teachers meeting with union representatives off school property, meaning there will be no teachers or pickets lines at schools.
That means for most students, Friday will be the last day of the school year. For schools where ongoing, rotating strike action is taking place on Friday, the last day of school would be today. Should the strike be averted, classes are scheduled to run until Thursday, June 26.
'I'm profoundly sorry'
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender said he was disappointed for children and teachers who want to see a positive end to the school year.
"I am still profoundly disappointed that we have found ourselves in the potential for a full walkout. And the study session on Monday could mean for some schools, today is the last day of school," he said.
Fassbender said he knew the situation was stressful for everyone, but said the government would be at the negotiating table as long as it took to reach a settlement this weekend.
"If the BCTF was prepped to end the strike, we are committed and we will still be at the table 24/7 to get a negotiated settlement.
"If the BCTF comes with reasonable responses to finding a settlement, we will be able to negotiate a deal and that will be good for everyone."
In a message directly to teachers, Fassbender said, "I’m profoundly sorry you're in the middle of all of this.
"No one wants this, but we have to break the cycle and to do that, we need a negotiated settlement...I’m hoping we’ll have a negotiated settlement and all of this will be academic."
Premier Christy Clark weighs in
Fassbender countered reporters' questions about why B.C. Premier Christy Clark had not intervened in the long-running dispute, saying he had been working with the premier and she is "totally engaged" in the situation.
A little later, speaking at a press conference promoting investment by Rogers Communications, Clark said the long-running teachers' dispute does not serve parents or children well.
"Monday is very, very short notice for parents and these disputes... put children in the middle of this fight that is a fight between adults," she said.
"We must find a way to settle these agreements without putting kids and their education in jeopardy."
Clark said she did not wish to bring a false sense of optimism to the dispute, but she hopes the BCTF and government can agree on a settlement by the end of June.
"The only way we’re going to get to an agreement is if the parties come to the table willing to talk, ready to bargain and it's really good news there's a revised offer on the table," she said.
"You never know, if they sit and they really work at it hard with a real will to get there, they could have an agreement at the end of the weekend."
Exams, grades ruled essential services
In light of the notice of a full-scale teachers' strike, the Labour Relations Board ruled Thursday that the designation of essential services would be varied to allow secondary students to complete the school year and receive final grades.
In a press release published on its website, the B.C. Public School Employers' Association said the following services have now been deemed essential, making them compulsory regardless of any full-scale strike:
- Supervision of Grade 10-12 provincial exams.
- Provision of final grades for Grade 12 students no later than June 20.
- Carrying out of all tests scheduled to determine if a student should receive a special needs designation.
- Provision of all information needed to confirm or discontinue the designation for students in the intensive behaviour/serious mental illness category for the 2014-15 school year.
School districts must now consult with teachers on the best way to ensure these requirements are met, whilst minimizing the number of staff needed by combining classes or holding exams in larger groups.
The press release notes that the LRB will rule on the issue of the submission of marks for Grades 10 and 11 students if an application is received.
The BCPSEA says it expects a further essential services order for support staff union members to be issued later on Thursday.
Teachers table new wage proposal
Despite pending strike action, Iker said the BCTF has a new bargaining package and wage proposal, and negotiations will continue with the government over the weekend in an attempt to reach a deal.
"My message to [B.C. Premier] Christy Clark is to come to the table with more money and an open mind."
"I'm hoping both sides will be rolling up their sleeves to get that deal done," Iker said at a news conference Thursday morning.
"We have a revised wage proposal. We know we have to compromise to reach a deal," said Iker.
Iker would not reveal the details of the new proposal, saying they were for the bargaining table.
But he said teachers will either be looking at the revised bargaining package during the study session on Monday, or a contract settlement, if one is reached over the weekend.
Teachers were first informed about the unions plans for a full strike in a letter issued on Wednesday night.
"We believe that the combined actions of bargaining hard and the solidarity of standing together are the key ingredients needed to get a deal that works for teachers and for our students before June 30 and hopefully sooner," said the letter.
"Please know that both parties are currently involved in discussions," the letter continued. "Our intention is to bargain non-stop throughout the weekend.
"We believe that a small, but important window to negotiate a fair deal exists and we want to take every opportunity to get that deal."
However, the letter said, the situation is fluid and members should take personal items they will need during the summer home with them this week.
Teachers vote to strike
Some 28,809 teachers voted in favour of a full-scale walkout, of a total of 33,387 who cast ballots in a vote held Monday and Tuesday this week.
The union is required to give notice of three days before members walk off the job.
Teachers have been without a contract since June 2013, and the vote is the latest development in the dispute that has seen the union and government divided over issues of wages and classroom conditions.
The government has saved $12 million each week in salaries during the teachers' current but limited job action, plus nearly $5 million more by chopping wages.
In the event of a full strike affecting the end of the school year, the B.C. government says every effort will be made to ensure report cards and exams aren't affected.
Potential strike impacts
Here's what the full strike would mean for students in kindergarten up to Grade 9:
- Schools would be closed.
- Parents should make child care arrangements, where required.
- Final report cards will be sent to parents, but written comments may be shorter than usual.
Here's what the full strike would mean for students in Grades 10, 11 and 12:
- Secondary schools would likely only be open for the purpose of administering exams.
- Picket lines could be outside schools.
- Students in rural areas may not have normal school bus service.
- Provincial exams will be marked and final marks will be sent out in as timely a manner as possible.
The Ministry of Education says the BC Public School Employers' Association (BCPSEA) has asked the Labour Relations Board to deem the work required for the completion of report cards as an essential service.
Schedule for B.C.'s provincial exams
- Apprenticeship and Workplace Mathematics 10 Foundations of Mathematics and Pre-Calculus 10 (Schools may schedule these sessions at any time after June 16.)
- Science 10 (only for schools that require an early session)
- Apprenticeship and Workplace Mathematics 10 Foundations of Mathematics
- Pre-Calculus 10
- BC First Nations Studies 12
- English 12
- English 10 First Peoples
- Communications 12
- Français langue première 10
- Français langue seconde-immersion 12
- Français langue première 12
- Science 10
- Civic Studies 11
- English 12 First Peoples
- English 10
- Social Studies 11
Source: B.C. Ministry of Education