Prince Rupert teachers, school district welcome return of classes

After spending months on picket lines, Prince Rupert teachers entered schools on Friday to prepare for the start of the 2014/2015 year.

After spending months on picket lines, Prince Rupert teachers entered schools on Friday to prepare for the start of the 2014/2015 year.

For months negotiations between the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) were at a halt, but after a six-day marathon of bargaining sessions a tentative agreement was reached on Sept. 16.

Eighty-six per cent of the more than 31,000 teachers who voted on the deal were in favour, with the ratification of the new collective agreement ending the strike and lockout on Sept. 18.

“I think our bargaining team did a good job and worked extremely hard to get the deal we got, but it does not resolve issues that the teachers’ union had,” said Kathy Murphy, president of the Prince Rupert District Teachers’ Union (PRDTU).

Over the life of the six-year agreement $400-million in education funding will be provided by the provincial government to hire classroom teachers and specialists. The government will also disburse $105 million to address grievances, which the BCTF will hand out as a signing bonus.

The contract won’t restore class size and composition limits or specialist teachers ratios that were in place before 2002, but a clause nullifying BCTF court victories relating to class size and composition was dropped from the deal.

“We want more support for kids in our classrooms in Prince Rupert. That’s been a long-standing position of the PRDTU,” said Murphy.

“Teachers are questioning if anything will be different in their classrooms.”

The BCTF agreed to take a 7.25 per cent increase in salary throughout the life of the agreement, the same amount as other public sector workers. Murphy said that this doesn’t cover teachers’ cost of living, which she said has jumped 2.1 per cent this year alone.

Furthermore, the collective agreement will mean improvements in extended health benefits and the rate for teachers-on-call.

“Teachers are happy to be going back to school,” Murphy said, adding there’s still work to be done in the future.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender congratulated teachers on the settlement, which ends a bitter strike that shut schools for two weeks in June and another three weeks this fall.

“We can now focus on the path forward,” Fassbender said.

“This long-term agreement is an historic opportunity to work together for students – to enhance their education experience and to support their achievements.”

Despite the delayed start, the school year won’t be extended. Prince Rupert School District superintendent Sandra Jones said semesters will be adjusted so they are even, with provincial exam dates being moved to correspond with the changes.

Prince Rupert RCMP, meanwhile, are reminding both drivers and pedestrians to be extra cautious as the new school year gets underway.

“Drivers are asked to slow down in school zones and pay close attention to their surroundings as children may be crossing unexpectedly,” said Const. Matt Ericson, spokesman for the Prince Rupert RCMP.

“We also want to remind students to always use marked crosswalks and to cross defensively. As the days begin to get shorter with the change of seasons and inclement weather, drivers and pedestrians need to be aware that visibility is reduced and to never to assume that they have been seen.”