A crowd gathered outside Education Minister Peter Fassbender’s constituency office in Fleetwood on Tuesday afternoon to protest the ongoing public education dispute.

Start of school year strikes out

Parents and teachers rally in Surrey as public schools face prolonged shutdown; private schools open on schedule.

Pickets were brandished instead of pencils at public schools this week, as classes were cancelled amid the ongoing B.C. teachers’ dispute.

As of Tuesday morning which was to be the first day of class for Surrey’s 72,000 and Delta’s 15,500 students teachers were back walking picket lines outside all local schools and parents were making alternate plans for their children.

Surrey mom Meera Gill’s two kids graduated in the spring, but that didn’t stop her from getting involved this week.

She helped organize a parent walk in Holland Park scheduled for tonight which is expected to draw a significant crowd.

“I struggled through the 12 years as a single mom and I know how hard it is,” Gill said. “It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t easy, but when you see something not right, you speak up.

She said other parents she’s spoken with have waited patiently for both sides in the teacher dispute to come to some agreement, but are quickly becoming angry and frustrated as their children are denied an education.

“We understand it’s a complex matter, we’re not looking for fault,” said Gill. “What we want is a resolution. Figure this out.

The B.C. Federation of Labour (BCFL) also organized a series of “solidarity rallies” this week the first of which was held Tuesday in Surrey outside the office of Education Minister Peter Fassbender, who is also the MLA for Surrey-Fleetwood.

Hundreds of people of all ages braved the rain, carrying signs reading “Investing in education makes cents!” and “One fish, two fish, fund schools, our wish!”

“The B.C. Liberal government just doesn’t get it,” said Jim Sinclair, president of the BCFL. “We know that the majority of people in this province support teachers and overwhelmingly agree with the issues they are fighting for.

Subsequent BCFL rallies were also planned for yesterday at Premier Christy Clark’s office in Kelowna, Thursday at Labour Minister Shirley Bond’s office in Prince George, and Friday at the B.C. Liberal cabinet office in Vancouver.

Tuesday was also the start of a social-media-driven “MLAplaydate” concept where, in the absence of school, the public was encouraged to take children to their local Liberal MLA’s office. While some parents and kids carried signs or delivered letters, others drew pictures or left chalk messages on the sidewalk.

Most MLAs were not in their offices, with at least one posting a note on a window saying the office would be closed during the dispute for the safety of staff.

It was business as usual for educators at private schools, however, where the return to classrooms was right on schedule.

Two in South Surrey White Rock Christian Academy (WRCA) and Star of the Sea opened Tuesday, and a third, Southridge School, was set to open Thursday.

WRCA’s first day was a short one, with students dismissed at noon after a brief assembly in which staff including new principal David Michel introduced themselves to students.

“It’s been a really busy day, but it’s great to get back at it,” said WRCA’s Director of Advancement Sam Rehman.

The parking lot at Star of the Sea Catholic School on 24 Avenue was packed with parents dropping off and picking up children as the school started fall as usual, with a morning assembly for Grades 1-7 on Tuesday and an afternoon kindergarten session on Wednesday.

A new principal, Nicole Regush, and a new pastor, Fr. Glen Dion, are among the staff additions.

Southridge officials declined to comment formally or to participate in back-to-school photos. They said they are sensitive to the issue, as both students and teachers at the school have close connections to the public system.

Meanwhile, school district administrators in Surrey and Delta 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.

Veteran mediator Vince Ready walked away from 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.

B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) 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 more for special needs and to settle grievances.

On Wednesday, Premier Christy Clark urged the BCTF to agree to suspend its strike to allow classes to open while negotiations continue to end the teachers’ strike.

And she insisted the union must make significant movement towards the public sector pattern on wage increases so the two sides can hammer out a deal to improve class support for special needs, which she called the biggest issue facing the education system.

“There are no easy fixes and no shortcuts to achieving long-term labour peace for kids,” Clark said in a news conference.

Another challenge to a negotiated settlement is 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.

He said the province wants new contract language that will “nullify” 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 again insisted the province won’t legislate the teachers back to work, saying it would keep the government and union “on the same dysfunctional treadmill” they’ve been on for 30 years.

“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.

– With files from Jeff Nagel and Peace Arch News

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