School begins with few hiccups despite teacher job action

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School startup was relatively smooth in Nanaimo this fall, considering teachers began job action on the first day back to class.

Donna Reimer, district spokeswoman, said by the second week, students were settling down in their assigned classrooms and the full-day kindergarten students had their first full day of instruction on Wednesday after a gradual introduction to school the week before.

District administrators continue to meet regularly with the teachers’ union to ensure everyone understands what duties teachers will and won’t perform, she said.

“There’s lots of little details that we’ve needed to work through and it’s continuing,” said Reimer. “Definitely we’ve had to adjust at the district level and the school level.”

District management have put their regular duties aside and head to schools to help principals and vice-principals with playground supervision duties at different times of the day.

“It is disruptive, definitely, for people,” said Reimer.

Preliminary enrolment numbers indicate the district has about 130 more students than budgeted for, but the numbers will likely decrease as schools check on students who were enrolled but have not yet shown up.

The district does not receive any extra funding for additional students this year, but the school board voted to include about $500,000 in contingency funds in the event enrolment is more than expected.

Derek DeGear, president of the Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association, described school startup as “amazingly smooth.”

“I know we started the year with job action and there was a lot of apprehension among teachers and parents,” he said. “I really feel the impact on students has been minimal.”

Aside from some minor misunderstandings between principals and teachers relating to job action, teachers are busy getting to know their students and communicating with parents as usual, said DeGear.

While the Labour Relations Board has outlined what teacher job action entails, district and union officials have had to hammer out some of the little details not answered by the ruling – the two parties have spent about 20 hours coming to a common agreement on different issues not addressed by the board.

“We’ve been trying to make sure we’re getting the same message out,” said DeGear.

The union has also heard from a couple dozen teachers upset with the size of their classrooms or the number of special needs in the class.

DeGear expects to get a better sense of the number of oversize classrooms over the next few weeks as teachers consult with principals about class size and composition issues.

On the bargaining front, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association are awaiting a clarification from an arbitrator about the split of issues between local and provincial bargaining tables.

Teachers, whose contract expired June 30, are seeking more power at local bargaining tables, as well as increased salaries and benefits and improvements to working conditions.

Meanwhile, the union has walked away from discussions with the province at a separate table regarding a Supreme Court ruling on legislation that took away the union’s rights to bargain limits on class sizes and number of special needs students in each class while it awaits clarification on that ruling. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 11.

Last spring, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin ruled certain parts of the 2002 legislation violated teachers’ rights to freedom of association under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and were unconstitutional and invalid.

The Supreme Court gave the province up to a year to address deficiencies in the legislation and the province is consulting with the union to determine how this will be done.

DeGear said teachers want to be able to negotiate these issues at the bargaining table, but so far all the province has proposed is setting up a pool of money, called a “class organization fund” that would address some of the issues, but not have negotiated class size and composition limits put in teachers’ contracts.

“We believe it should be part of contract negotiations,” said DeGear.

In an e-mailed statement, Education Minister George Abbott said the union walked away from consultations a day after the province tabled a proposal for setting aside a fund to address some of the concerns heard from teachers.

“I believe the parties can continue the discussion of that proposal and I hope that we can make good use of the time between now and October 11,” he said.