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Hundreds of B.C. teachers, parents and other union supporters rallied on the lawn of the B.C. Legislature Monday, June 16, 2014 in Victoria to protest against Premier Christy Clark and the governments latest contract offer. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Hundreds of B.C. teachers, parents and other union supporters rallied on the lawn of the B.C. Legislature Monday, June 16, 2014 in Victoria to protest against Premier Christy Clark and the governments latest contract offer.

(Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

B.C. school districts ask for ruling on summer classes Add to ...

The group representing B.C.’s 60 school districts has asked the Labour Relations Board to designate some summer-school programs as essential services, adding another layer of confusion to a teachers’ strike that has closed schools around the province.

The B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) on Tuesday filed an application to have certain summer programs – including secondary remedial programs for students who have failed a high-school course – deemed an essential service. The application also asks that schools that operate on a year-round calendar be kept open

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The application follows an earlier, successful one by the province to have exams deemed an essential service and comes amid fears that the dispute could drag into the summer and beyond.

The province recently set aside $80,000 to get its message across during the strike, highlighting the role of social media and the fight for public support in the dispute.

To date, the highest-profile expenditure has been for a June 20 cover advertisement on a local newspaper that featured a graphic of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) salary demands orbiting far outside a provincial “affordability zone.”

The province has also been sharing the “affordability zone” advertisement through a government-run Twitter account, annoying teachers who say the education-related account should not be used for political purposes.

“Government felt it was its role and responsibility to ensure that British Columbians have access to reliable information,” Scott Sutherland, a spokesman with the provincial education ministry, said on Tuesday.

About a quarter of the $80,000 has been spent to date, including spending on design and creative work, Mr. Sutherland said.

The government’s more assertive communications strategy follows weeks in which teachers used social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to air strike-related opinions and concerns. The province’s 41,000 unionized teachers began strike action in April, moved to rotating walkouts in May and have been on full strike since June 17.

Both sides recently agreed to a mediator but to date, a mediator has not been chosen. And although the sides have moved closer on wages – the BCTF is seeking eight per cent over five years, while the province has offered seven per cent over six years – they remain far apart on issues including teachers’ benefits and the amount of money the government should spend to address class-size and composition concerns.

The controversial “affordability zone” advertisement came only a few days after a June 16 press conference in which BCTF president Jim Iker said the government had “squandered an opportunity” to reach a deal in negotiations that took place over the preceding weekend. Mr. Iker also claimed the government had moved backward in its wage offer to the union.

Those claims drew a sharp response from negotiator Peter Cameron, who in a briefing shortly after Mr. Iker’s remarks, said the union president was “misrepresenting” the government’s position as well as how negotiations played out over that weekend.

Mr. Cameron is lead negotiator for the BCPSEA, the bargaining agent for B.C.’s 60 school boards.

The BCTF has not launched any provincewide advertising campaign during the strike, spokesman Rich Overgaard said on Tuesday, but some locals have purchased advertising on their own in recent weeks. The BCTF recently told its members that its strike fund is drained; the union does not publish its financial accounts but says legal costs have been substantial over the past decade.

The BCTF and the province are engaged in a lengthy court battle over 2002 education legislation that stripped teachers’ rights to negotiate class size and composition. Two court rulings have gone in the BCTF’s favour. An appeal is scheduled to be heard in the fall.

On Monday, teachers confronted Education Minister Peter Fassbender at a Liberal Party golf tournament, peppering him with questions about the strike.

One of those teachers was Scott Susin, a Mission school teacher who has spent the past few days canvassing counterparts about classroom conditions, collecting accounts such as, “Grade 6: 29 students, 75 per cent of class where English wasn’t their primary language, 3 with emotional/behavioural disorders, 2 severe anxiety, 1 compulsive defiant.”

“I believe the public really doesn’t understand what class composition means,” Mr. Susin said. “There are a lot of special-needs kids in our classes, and the supports aren’t there any more.”

Talks are expected to resume Wednesday. The government is saving roughly $12-million in wages every day teachers are on strike; if the strike continues until the end of the school year, the total savings would amount to about $168-million.

Follow on Twitter: @wendy_stueck

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