Lynn Straiton

Classrooms go quiet in SD 62

But for the quiet swish of mops, classrooms in the Sooke School District were quiet this week.

But for the quiet swish of mops, classrooms in the Sooke School District were quiet this week in the wake of the provincial teachers’ strike.

One 10-year-old boy had the run of Happy Valley elementary on Monday, but parents kept the vast majority of students at home. Of about 8,500 kids in the district, less than a dozen were dropped off at schools.

“We are here and we are open,” remarked Julia Sahota, principal of Happy Valley. “We can keep them safe, but there are no teachers here to teach them.”

Silence in school halls was in contrast to honks of support from traffic as hundreds of West Shore teachers walked “information lines” for their legal three-day strike.

Teachers say the job action is about fighting for control of class size and adequate help for special needs students.

“There are so many students with different needs in a class of 35 to 40. I can’t get to every student who needs one-on-one attention or help,” said Paul Waterlander, staff union rep and a Belmont secondary history teacher.

“Today is a response to a government that refuses to negotiate with teachers. Bill 22 is contract stripping,” he said. “The (B.C. Teachers’ Federation) is asking for neutral mediation, not government appointed mediators.”

The atmosphere on the “information lines” remained jovial and good spirited as teachers paced sidewalks to keep warm. As SD 62 secretary treasurer Dave Lockyer walked out of the Jacklin Road district office, he waved to Belmont teachers and called out a friendly “hello.”

“We are all friends here,” Lockyer said. “It’s really not a problem here, it’s a problem at the provincial level.”

Sooke Teachers Association president Patrick Henry said teachers are overwhelmed from support of the passing public. “Everyone is chipper and cheerful with all the support they are getting,” he said.

The BCTF maintains Bill 22 strips key provisions out of collective agreement, including class size and composition.

The wording of Bill 22 does disallow the teachers’ collective bargaining from including the negotiation of class sizes, work loads, staffing level ratios, and a number of provisions that might restrict the power of a school board to make regulations.

The bill does restrict class size to 30 students for grades 4 to 12, unless overridden by the district or school principal.

“Other unions recognize this as a labour busting agenda,” Henry said.

Teachers have permission from the Labour Relations Board to strike for three days this week and one day per week over the next two weeks. Henry couldn’t predict if teachers would return to classrooms on Thursday. The BCTF and teachers can be heavily fined for illegal strike days.

“I can’t speculate. It’s day by day right now,” Henry said on Monday. “No one can predict what will happen.”

In the meantime, non-teaching staff are taking advantage of empty classrooms to catch up on maintenance and cleaning.

“The chairs are up, (janitorial staff) are waxing floors and doing what needs to be done,” said SD 62 superintendent Jim Cambridge. “Work is happening all over.”

Cambridge said it will be up to the province if extra class time will be added for missing three instructional days.

“Hopefully the secondary students facing provincial exams have taken work home to keep caught up.”

Bill 22 was up for debate in the legislature Monday. NDP house leader John Horgan said the government could push the law through and force teachers back to work, but the Liberals don’t appear to be in a hurry.

“My sense is there will be a slow walk through,” said Horgan, MLA for Juan de Fuca. “There is no sense of urgency, but (today) that could change.”

All opposition members are ready to speak against the bill, Horgan said, which could add up to 34 hours, which doesn’t include clause-by-clause debate.

Stephanie Longstaff, president of the district parent advisory council, said parents are making due, but would like to see an end to the labour strife.

“Personally, it’s unfortunate children’s education has to be affected by this,” she said. As mom of a Grade 9 Dunsmuir secondary student, Longstaff is keeping her son busy around the house.

“He’s doing yard work for a few days,” she said laughing. He doesn’t mind missing school for a few days. “He’d rather make a few bucks.”

—with files from Charla Huber