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BCTF, Fassbender meet as teachers strike threatens to delay school start

Penticton schools were behind picket lines again this week, including Carmi Elementary School where, left to right, Christie McRobb, Leanne Stewart and Kristina Persson were walking the line, Tuesday morning. There is currently no end in sight in the labour dispute between the two sides. - Mark Brett / Black Press
Penticton schools were behind picket lines again this week, including Carmi Elementary School where, left to right, Christie McRobb, Leanne Stewart and Kristina Persson were walking the line, Tuesday morning. There is currently no end in sight in the labour dispute between the two sides.
— image credit: Mark Brett / Black Press

B.C. students are just days away from the scheduled start of a new school year but  there's little sign of a break in the teachers strike that has dragged on through the summer.

The final week of summer holiday opened Sunday with a demand in Kamloops from B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker for an immediate start to mediation.

No formal bargaining dates are scheduled, but Iker, Education Minister Peter Fassbender and government negotiator Peter Cameron are meeting today in Victoria, raising hopes for some movement.

Teachers have also stepped up picketing as both sides prepare for the strike to stretch into September.

A mass rally outside the premier's Vancouver cabinet offices is also set for Sept. 5.

Veteran mediator Vince Ready is monitoring the talks and has indicated he will step into full mediation if it would be productive to do so.

Both sides blame the other for a gulf between positions that's too wide for Ready to attempt to bridge.

The province says the teachers' pay and benefits demands remain far in excess of settlements reached with other public sector unions.

Teachers, meanwhile, accuse the government of insisting on preconditions to talks that would unravel the union's past court victories over the province on the stripping of contract terms on class size and special needs support.

The province is appealing the latest court ruling against it.

Also gaining prominence in recent days has been an opt-out clause that the government has tabled that would allow either side to terminate a new collective agreement if it dislikes the ultimate court outcome from either the B.C. Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court of Canada.

An education ministry spokesman said he was surprised it has become an issue now.

It was disclosed in mid-June by government negotiators who pitched it as a "pragmatic and creative" way to give the union comfort it wouldn't be handed a massive defeat in court and could therefore shelve those issues and negotiate an interim agreement while the appeal proceeds.

But a BCTF spokesman said it's the province not teachers who want an escape hatch, adding it suggests the government fears it will lose in court again and is seeking to block that outcome.

He credited BCTF members on Twitter for bringing the clause into public focus.

The Liberal government has promised to pay parents $40 a day for each child under 13 who misses school if the strike continues.

Various organizations and businesses are scaling up their day camp and other supervised care offerings for September in anticipation of a continued school shutdown.

The province also promised Tuesday to cover supported child development costs for in-school hours for special needs children now accessing services.

Fassbender on Monday reiterated the government's position that it has no desire to legislate the teachers back to work.

The lumpsum payouts to parents following the end of the strike will consume all of the $12 million a day in strike savings the government would have amassed going forward.

Parents can sign up for the payments at bcparentinfo.ca, a government-created website that seeks to prepare parents for an ongoing strike this fall.

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