Students worry about their futures as school strike stubbornly persists

Twins Grace and Mary Warren and friend Faith Brown — Grade 12 students at Stelly’s Secondary School — are getting increasingly worried as a strike by Saanich School District support workers stretches into a third week.

With the Saanich Teachers’ Association not crossing picket lines, classes for close to 8,000 students have been cancelled since Oct. 28 and have been called off again today.

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The three youths took their concerns to the street Wednesday, organizing a protest by senior students at the Hillside Avenue constituency office of Education Minister Rob Fleming.

About 30 students showed up for the rally, organized via Instagram. They want the minister to do something about the dispute between the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 441 and the Saanich School District, which has resulted in the closing of 14 schools in Saanich, Central Saanich, North Saanich and Sidney.

“We just really want to be back in the schools as soon as possible,” Grace Warren said. “We acknowledge that it’s an important issue, but as far as we’ve heard, there hasn’t been a ton of conversation happening at the table and so we’re looking to get the next level of government involved.”

The school-support workers, including education assistants, custodians, clerical staff and others, are seeking wage parity with similar workers in neighbouring school districts. They were joined by supporters Wednesday on picket lines at the Saanich School District office on Keating Cross Road.

Brown, who plans to attend the University of Victoria and take courses in English and history next year, said students’ anxiety is building as the strike drags on.

“I know personally in math, I’ve probably already missed two units and that puts me behind for university applications, scholarship applications and just good old graduation.

“In order for us to get back in the classroom, we need [Fleming’s] help, and he needs to step in and step up.”

Grace Warren, who is planning to study sciences at UVic, is worried some of the curriculum might be cut due to lost time.

“I hope we can find a way to get it all back into the time we have. Whether it’s rushed or not is another question.”

She said she hopes Fleming can get discussions going again after a week without talks.

Twin sister Mary, who is also looking to attend UVic and study sciences, said the goal was to have “a respectful, polite protest” to get Fleming’s attention. “I don’t really know when we’re going back or what I should be doing on to keep up,” she said. “The sooner we get back the better.”

Premier John Horgan said Wednesday he doesn’t think government intervention is inevitable in the Saanich dispute, and has faith an agreement will be reached through collective bargaining. “I know we are committed to getting agreements across the board and I know all parties will work as hard as they can,” he told reporters in Langford at the Westhills Building, where he was making an announcement on government office space on the West Shore.

“No one wants to withdraw services on the labour side, and if you are an employer, you certainly don’t want, in the case of the education sector, you don’t want to be the person giving bad news to parents who are concerned their children are not going to school today.”

Asked if the support workers would be legislated back to work, Horgan said the government has a mandate that it has put before public employees in every sector and the vast majority have signed agreements. That mandate sets wage increases at two per cent annually for three years.

The district has offered the support workers wage increases of 7.1 to 12.8 per cent over three years, with the higher amounts targeted to those making the lowest wages relative to other districts. The union has rejected that offer.

“We believe the Saanich School District has worked very creatively within that mandate and we are hopeful the parties will come to a conclusion shortly,” Horgan said. “We believe there are sufficient resources available to meet the challenges in that particular district, but it is a collision of local bargaining and province-wide bargaining.

“These issues have built up in Saanich over a number of contracts … it will take time to resolve some of these issues.”

District superintendent Dave Eberwein reassured students that the job action won’t stop them from graduating or moving up to another grade.

He said the district is working with school administrators on a plan for when students return to classes, including adjusted timelines for things like report cards and parent-teacher interviews. He said he doesn’t anticipate changing the Christmas or spring breaks to make up classroom hours, citing contractual obligations and vacation plans.

Eberwein said information on topics including applications for post-secondary institutions was sent to parents Wednesday.

“We’ve gotten through work stoppages before and school closures before, and we’ll do so again this time.”

CUPE 441 president Dean Coates said that while no bargaining is underway, “high-level discussions” are going on behind the scenes.

“That’s always been the case, so despite the fact we’re not meeting face-to-face, we’re still talking,” he said. “That is absolutely going on and I’m hopeful with that.”

jwbell@timescolonist.com

— With a file from Andrew Duffy

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