Premier Christy Clark made sure to emphasize that today should've been public school students' second day of classes when she spoke to reporters this afternoon at her downtown Vancouver office.
But the premier maintained the only way schools are going to open is if the BC Teachers' Federation makes more concessions at the bargaining table.
"The teachers' union has refused to suspend their strike while we continue negotiating with them. They are still demanding twice as much as other public sector workers have received," Clark said, adding the 150,000 B.C. workers with settled union contracts had salaries fair for both them and taxpayers, and without the $5,000 signing bonus teachers are asking for.
Neither side has changed what it is asking for at the table since bargaining broke down at the end of June: seven per cent over six years offered by the government, and eight per cent over five years requested by the teachers.
A media blackout announced mid-August prevented either side from publicly updating its proposals, though the union said it is still asking for the $5,000 signing bonus originally proposed in June and has cut $125 million from the $225-million annual fund it wants to hire more teachers.
Solve wages first, premier says
Standing next to Education Minister Peter Fassbender, who refused comment during the press conference, Clark said until teachers come closer to the government in terms of the cost of wages and benefits, they could not bring attention to "what is most vital to the future of education in British Columbia": class composition.
The union initially asked for lower class sizes, a cap on the number of special needs students per class, and a fixed ratio of teachers-to-students for specialty teachers like counsellors and teacher librarians. They have since offered to let the B.C. Court of Appeal decide on the provisions, and instead asked for the now $100-million annual fund for hiring more teachers.
Despite two B.C. Supreme Court rulings that found stripping class size and composition language from teacher contracts in 2002 was unconstitutional, the government has refused to lower class sizes, agree to a formula for hiring teachers, or cap the number of special needs students per class.
The government is also asking teachers to agree to clause E. 81, which puts the $75-million annual Learning Improvement Fund ($15 million of which goes to CUPE support workers) and the class size regulations contained in the School Act into the collective agreement, regardless of the upcoming Court of Appeal ruling.*
According to the government, class size averages in B.C. are at historic lows and the smallest in the country. But the union argues that class sizes have increased for kindergarten to Grade 7 since 2006.
Over the weekend, BC Teachers' Federation President Jim Iker asked Clark to meet with him personally. The premier did not respond publicly, but posted a letter from the education minister to her Facebook page on Tuesday, calling on teachers to reduce their demands and promising not to legislate them back to work or raise taxes to fund their proposals.
"Everything [Fassbender] is doing to resolve this dispute and to get our kids back into schools has been a tremendous effort, and he has been working at it every single day and doing his best to make sure that we can resolve this for the families of British Columbia," Clark said.
To read BCTF President Jim Iker's response to Clark's press conference today, go here.
*Story corrected Sept. 4 at 10:30 a.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly described clause E. 80.