Five-year-old Graham Britton’s excitement to go to school is mirrored by Okanagan Landing Elementary teachers Sheila Monroe (from left)

Five-year-old Graham Britton’s excitement to go to school is mirrored by Okanagan Landing Elementary teachers Sheila Monroe (from left)

Smiles greet tentative teachers’ deal

B.C.’s striking teachers will vote this week on a tentative settlement with the provincial government

B.C.’s striking teachers will vote this week on a tentative settlement with the provincial government.

Mediator Vince Ready announced the agreement early Tuesday morning, after five days of talks at a Richmond hotel.

“It’s a process of negotiations; both parties worked very hard to get this agreement,” said Ready. “I’m pleased there’s an agreement and I think the public of British Columbia will be very pleased there’s an agreement.”

With a ratification vote of 40,000 union members expected to be held Thursday, the province’s 60 school districts are attempting to return to regular classes next week after five weeks of full-scale strike action that began last June.

Premier Christy Clark calls the tentative settlement a “historic” achievement.

Clark said if the vote passes, schools will be up and running again as early as Monday. She thanked parents for their patience as the strike dragged into the fall, saying a negotiated settlement was the only way to improve a relationship that has been dysfunctional for 30 years.

“We’ll have five years to talk about the things that really matter, and that’s children in classrooms,” Clark said in Vancouver Tuesday.

The agreement includes money to settle thousands of union grievances accumulated since the province removed class size and teacher staffing levels from the teacher contract in 2002.

Clark said the deal includes increased funds to hire more teachers to address class size and special needs support. It is for six years, retroactive to the expiry of the earlier agreement last spring, with raises averaging just over one per cent per year.

The government’s appeal of a court decision ordering the return of 2002 class size provisions will continue, Clark said.

Vernon School District superintendent Joe Rogers said the hope is that students will be back in the classroom as early as next week.

“Our schools are ready to go, our custodial staff has done a fantastic job, we’re clean and ready to go — we have a few finishing touches on some renovations and those can be finished up on the weekend,” said Rogers. “We’re hoping the teachers will ratify on Thursday and then we can take Friday as a set-up day — we have 100 teachers who have changed assignments and who have moved schools so it will give us time to do the elementary divisions and to be ready to start school on Monday. The only caveat is there could be a two-day start-up, so whether they will differentiate between districts, we don’t know at this point.”

Rogers said the district appreciates the efforts made by the bargaining teams to reach this tentative agreement, with further details to be revealed following Thursday’s vote.

“We’re really excited and thankful for the patience of the students, parents and the community, and the professionalism of the teachers during this very difficult time — there’s been a lot of emotion,” he said. “Everyone wants what’s best for the kids and for them to be back in school.”

The North Okanagan-Shuswap School District board chairman Bobbi Johnson reports the board is extremely happy with the news a tentative negotiated agreement has been reached.

“I’m very excited that if the agreement is ratified our 6,000 students will soon be able to start their much anticipated new school year,” she said.

Johnson said trustees across the province have been advocating for a negotiated agreement to end the labour dispute, calling on both sides to move beyond their current positions to make meaningful and real concessions with Ready’s assistance.

“We are so pleased that the BCTF, BCPSEA and the government have been able to work through this difficult time and reach a tentative negotiated agreement.”

Both school districts will update parents as soon as possible with a plan of what will happen if the tentative agreement is ratified.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender said a plan will be developed to make up missed instructional days, which could involve rescheduling Christmas and spring break or adding days to the end of the school year.

Every student’s education will be “kept whole,” particularly senior high school students looking ahead to post-secondary studies, he said.

“This is wonderful news for the students, teachers, administrators, support staff, trustees and parents in B.C.,” said B.C. School Trustees’ Association president Teresa Rezansoff. “The immediate goal is to get students back in classes as quickly as possible.”

The B.C. Public School Employers’ Association was seeking a six-year agreement with wage increases of just over one per cent per year, in line with other settlements in the provincial public service. A fund to address class size and composition has been a key issue in the dispute.

— with files from Tom Fletcher/Black Press