B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender is optimistic about the 2013-14 school year, despite stalled negotiations with B.C.'s two largest education unions.
The unions representing teachers and education support workers are both currently without contracts, and negotiations are expected to resume in September and October. In a conference call with northern media on Wednesday, Fassbender said he believes negotiated agreements can be reached with both unions without strikes or disruptions.
"I'm really looking forward to this new school year, without disruptions," Fassbender said. "I'm really hopeful that, as they get back to the table, that they can find a resolution with the school districts. I want to do it in the environment of collaboration and negotiation -that's my goal."
The contract with the B.C. Teachers' Federation expired in June and, to date, no negotiations have happened, Fassbender said. The provincial government is ready to, "sit down at any time," with the teachers' union, he added.
"The BCTF anticipated a change in government, which didn't happen," Fassbender said. "Since the election, I've met with the heads of the BCTF... and we put into place what they asked for, to negotiate directly with the province."
In June the province appointed a government negotiator to replace the bargaining team from the B.C. Public School Employer's Association, which represents the province's school districts.
A spokesperson for the BCTF couldn't be reached for comment as of press time, but in a June 28 statement, the union said 96 per cent of teachers opposed the change in bargaining in a province-wide poll.
More than anyone, teachers want stability in public education, BCTF president Susan Lambert said in the June statement. We are open to a longer-term agreement. With political will in Victoria and much-needed resources at the table and in the classroom, we can achieve a negotiated solution.
The contract with CUPE - which represents 27,000 educational assistants, clerical staff, custodians and other support workers -expired over a year ago. Talks between CUPE and the B.C. Public School Employer's Association, which represents the province's school districts, stalled earlier this month, according to a CUPE statement issued Monday. CUPE has launched a media campaign to build public support for the union, ahead of negotiations resuming next week.
"We've made every effort to bargain a fair and reasonable settle with the employers, but their lack of preparation is threatening to disrupt classes this fall," CUPE-BC president Mark Hancock said in a statement. "If the government doesn't show a commitment to bargaining, our members will take full-scale job action. They're frustrated that we've had three false starts to negotiating, and the clock is ticking."
The province is negotiating with both unions under the so-called co-operative gains mandate, which requires wage increases must be funded by gains elsewhere in the system.
No update on Highglen
Fassbender wasn't able to provide an update on the fate of Highglen Montessori elementary school. A fire closed the school on April 22, forcing the Montessori alternative program's 236 students to relocate to Gladstone elementary school in College Heights.
Fassbender said ministry staff are in discussion with the Prince George School District on the possibility of rebuilding the school.
"I'm going to be in Prince George in October," he said. "I know that we'll be talking about all of their capital projects."
The number of students attending Kindergarten to Grade 12 at schools in B.C. is expected to drop by almost one per cent compared to final enrollment numbers from 2012-2013.
Last school year, 531,516 students attended B.C. schools. School districts are expecting to see 5,224 fewer students this year, Fassbender said.
In May Prince George's school district board of trustees approved a budget based on an anticipated enrollment decline of 240 students. However, final enrollment numbers will not be available until September.