No additional funding to end school strike, province declares

The province says it won’t be providing additional funding to end a strike by support workers in Saanich School District, which has cancelled 10 days of classes.

In an email, the Ministry of Finance said Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 441 can reach a deal within what the ministry called the most generous bargaining mandate in over a decade.

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“Our government believes that solutions are best found at the bargaining table,” the ministry wrote. “Nurses, paramedics, care aids and social workers have all reached deals within the mandate, and CUPE 441 can, too.”

On Thursday, CUPE 441 president Dean Coates called upon the province to provide additional funding to the district to bring support workers’ wages in line with those in neighbouring districts.

“This dispute needs to be settled and settled quickly for the sake of our members, for the teachers and especially for the families and these kids that are here supporting us,” Coates said Friday.

The district has said it’s offering the maximum amount of money it is able to within a provincial framework that regulates public-sector wage increases, limiting them to two per cent annually over the next three years. The district has offered increases of 7.1 to 12.8 per cent over three years, with the higher increases targeted to staff with the lowest wages relative to other districts.

The strike began Oct. 28, leaving parents of almost 8,000 students scrambling to find alternate care.

Parents and students turned up at picket lines at schools in Brentwood Bay and Sidney on Friday in a show of support for striking workers, including custodians, clerical staff and education assistants. The workers are seeking wage parity with their counterparts in neighbouring school districts.

Devon Moeller, a Grade 12 student at Stelly’s Secondary, was among those at Brentwood Elementary on Friday. He said he is behind the striking workers, even though he’s worried about missing school during his senior year.

“It definitely doesn’t feel good,” he said of the two weeks away from classes. “Because I know once we go back, it’s definitely going to be the stress of all of it compiling in a shortened amount of time.

“We’re going to have less time to do things. Everyone’s going to be in a frenzy.”

Aidan Germain, who is also in Grade 12 at Stelly’s and was at the Brentwood protest, said the support workers deserve the wage parity they’re asking for, though the situation is tough on students nearing the end of high school. “We’ve got a lot of things riding on this year.”

Grade 12 classmate Hayley Pfeifle said she receives a lot of help from education assistants and credits them with helping her get as far as she has in her school career.

Parent Jessica Norman said she has two children at Brentwood Elementary, Maeli in kindergarten and Owen in Grade 5, and joined the strikers because she thinks a wage increase for support workers is warranted.

“Educationally, my kindergarten child has learned pretty much all of her ABCs and all of her numbers in a matter of two months,” she said. “And it’s not just the teachers who do that. It’s the support staff in the classrooms who provide an inclusive environment for all the kids to learn that contribute to that.”

She said her son in Grade 5 is going to middle school next year “and that presents some concerns with a lack of learning right now.”

Lisa McNeill, who has four children in the district —two at Brentwood Elementary, one at Bayside Middle School and one at Stelly’s — said her family is “100 per cent” behind the support workers. “Yes, we’re concerned about the kids missing out on school time, but if we don’t get wage parity for the support workers, they’ll simply leave our district and they’ll go elsewhere, and it’s hard enough for them to retain staff as it is.”

McNeill said she has particular concern about her son, Callan, in Grade 11 at Stelly’s.

“There’s not a lot we can do to help him as far as his course work,” she said. “And it’s difficult for him to try and keep up as it is at times, without losing as much time as he has at school.”

McNeill said her younger children are coping well. “We’re doing lots at home, lots of field trips.”

Coates said he is open to bargaining around-the-clock with the school board on the long weekend. “I’ve been trying to get them to give us their availability and get to the table.”

He said it’s up to district superintendent Dave Eberwein whether classes are adjusted to make up for time lost to the strike.

“We can’t make the call on whether he’s going to extend classes into the spring break or the summer break or into the Christmas break,” he said.

“It’s up to them whether they extend classes.”

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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