Students back to school in Saanich as union ratifies contract

Update: A strike that kept students in the Saanich School District from classes for three weeks is over after union members voted to accept a contract agreement reached over the weekend.

Support workers, including education assistants and custodians at 18 schools in the Saanich district, were on strike over wages since Oct. 28, leaving about 7,000 students out of class.

article continues below

Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 441 president Dean Coates said CUPE members will be back in classrooms as schools reopen Monday morning.

Coates did not provide many details about the deal, but said the union and school district were able to come significantly closer to wage parity within the region.

The agreement includes general wage increases of two per cent in each year of the three-year contract, he said.

The union represents 500 workers in the school district.

- - -

Previous story

Schools in the Saanich School District will be open Monday after the union reached a tentative deal with the district on Saturday.

Neither side is discussing any details on the agreement until union members meet to see the deal in a ratification meeting, expected to happen on Sunday.

Dean Coates, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 441, said the tentative agreement falls within the provincial mandate that limits public sector wages increases to two per cent annually over three years. The mandate had been a sticking point in the bargaining process, with the union calling on the province to provide more funding.

District superintendent Dave Eberwein said the district is “extremely pleased” a tentative agreement has been reached.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we will have a deal that will be ratified,” he said.

Regardless of the results of the union members’ vote on the agreement, schools will be open Monday.

Nearly 8,000 students in schools across Saanich, Central Saanich, North Saanich and Sidney have been out of school for three weeks since support workers launched job action on Oct. 28.

The union, representing roughly 500 support workers — including education assistants, custodians, bus drivers and administrative staff — was seeking wage parity with neighbouring districts.

Coates has said the difference in salary, up to several dollars an hour for some roles, had made it difficult to recruit and retain staff, leading to chronically short-handed classrooms.

Three weeks of cancelled classes left parents across the district scrambling to find last-minute, indefinite childcare.

James Taylor, vice-president of the Confederation of Parents’ Advisory Councils of Saanich, said parents and students were responding to the end of the strike with relief.

“It’s been a long three weeks,” he said. “We’ll wake up with a smile tomorrow.”

Taylor said there will be a lot of work to do to get students back on track, especially for high school students thinking about university. He plans to sit down with Eberwein next week to discuss how to support high school students.

Taylor wants parents to be aware of the stress and anxiety some students might be feeling as a result of lost class time and keep an eye out for any mental health struggles.

Parent Ashley Martin said Saturday’s news felt like a victory for everyone. Martin has two children — a six year-old son at Brentwood Elementary and a 13-year-old daughter at North Saanich Middle School.

“I don’t think people realized what a crisis we had going on in our district,” Martin said, adding she supported the union’s fight for wage parity. Unfilled education assistant positions at her son’s school meant he was sent home more than once because there weren’t enough support staff.

“This is a happy ending to what felt like a really hopeless situation,” she said.

Kari McCune, whose seven-year-old son attends Sidney Elementary, said she’s thrilled the union and district have reached a tentative agreement — as long as the deal brings support staff wages in line with neighbouring districts.

“Hopefully they’ve worked out a deal so that means we don’t have to do this again in three years,” she said.

Teachers were respecting picket lines, which meant forgoing three weeks of regular pay for a daily $50 in strike pay.

Don Peterson, president of the Sidney Teachers’ Association, called the end of the strike “fantastic news.”

He hoped the tentative agreement adequately addresses wage parity, as well as recruitment and retention of support workers.

“From a teacher’s point of view, we understand the impact it has on our schools, that students don’t get the consistent support they need,” Peterson said.

He said teachers were committed to supporting strike workers in their fight for wage parity.

“CUPE has been on the line for us. This is the first time they’ve asked us, so of course we were on board,” he said.

Schools will be confirming any changes to important dates like the end of term, semester changes and report cards in the coming days. A professional development day scheduled for Friday has been postponed, and schools will be open.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

— With a file from The Canadian Press

Read Related Topics

© Copyright Times Colonist

Find out what's happening in your community.

Most Popular