National News

B.C. school districts watching strike negotiations

By The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - School districts in British Columbia are holding off telling parents the start of classes will be cancelled next Tuesday amid fresh negotiations aimed at stopping the teachers' strike.

In the past few days, the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the employer have met with the education minister and a labour mediator. On Friday, bargaining committees from both sides met at a hotel in Richmond, south of Vancouver.

Jordan Tinney, superintendent of the Surrey School District, has written a letter to parents, saying his district could still manage to open schools if a deal is reached as late as Monday evening.

"If there is a deal even at the last minute, we will do everything possible to open schools right away," Tinney wrote. "We believe we will be able to open doors and begin our opening routines on short notice even if things will be unsettled to start."

He said the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, which bargains for the government, has informed the district the timing of school openings will probably be part of the negotiations with teachers.

The superintendent for the Victoria area, Sherri Bell, said it's unlikely school will start Tuesday, but she said her district won't make a final decision about classes until Monday.

Districts in Richmond and Prince George also said they are not ready to tell parents what they should expect next week.

Monica Pamer, superintendent of the Richmond School District, said she hopes to tell parents whether schools will opening by Monday, but she acknowledged it will be very difficult to say if and when classes begin.

"We're doing our best with this — it's very challenging," said Pamer. "I really appreciate the frustration that parents must be feeling."

Sharel Warrington, the chair of the Prince George school district, said the city's board of education will be watching bargaining developments very closely throughout the long weekend before making a decision on opening schools.

"At this point, it all hinges on the results of the negotiations," she said.

Warrington said it is unclear if schools can be opened on time if a last-minute deal is struck, because preparation time may be needed before classes begin.

Superintendent Dianne Turner of the Delta School District echoed that uncertainty.

"I remain hopeful that a deal will be reached over the weekend, enabling school to start next week," said Turner. "I ask that all families prepare for school to begin the week of Sept. 2 to 5."

On Wednesday, Jim Iker of the teachers' union and government negotiator Peter Cameron met with Education Minister Peter Fassbender in Victoria, who asked both sides to set aside some of the most divisive issues, suspend strikes or lockouts and start mediation.

Cameron and Iker then held what has been called an exploratory talk the following day with labour mediator Vince Ready, who was leading the meeting on Friday.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation confirmed Iker had booked a room in the hotel where the meeting was taking place on Friday.

The province's 40,000 public school teachers went on strike two weeks before the end of the school year, booting half a million students out of class before summer vacation.

The sticking points of the dispute are wages and issues such as class size and composition.

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