With the start of the school year only days away, bargaining teams for both sides in the teachers’ strike will meet for the first time Friday under the guidance of one of British Columbia’s most veteran mediators.
Word of the development came from Vince Ready, the mediator, after a three-hour meeting on Thursday between the president of the teachers’ union and the lead negotiator for the public-school employers association.
It all raises the prospect of a negotiated settlement to the three-month old strike that has had parents and students across the province waiting tensely to see whether schools will open on Tuesday.
(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)
Mr. Ready, emerging from the hotel meeting room where the three men sat around a table for hours without a break, described the meeting as a “candid exchange” between the parties about their positions.
“They still are a long way apart,” he told reporters, but added he had asked them to return with their bargaining committees on Friday to present proposals that would lead to some serious negotiations.
He said he would not have much more to say until he sees what progress is made Friday.
“It’s too early to be optimistic or pessimistic,” he said.
Peter Cameron, the chief government negotiator, said it might be possible to come up with a deal in time to allow for the re-opening of schools.
“I’m not pessimistic. I’d say that much,” the representative of the B.C Public School Employers’ Association told reporters about the odds of negotiating a deal.
“We had a frank discussion. That opens up some avenues. I am not going to characterize how big the avenues are at this point. I don’t want to prejudice discussions.”
He characterized Friday’s meeting as “exploratory.”
Jim Iker, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, left the hotel without comment to the media. In a tweet from the teachers’ federation, the union leader said he was “encouraged” at the prospect of Friday’s meeting.
The full strike began in June after weeks of rotating walkouts. Issues in the dispute include wages, class size and class composition.
B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender called for a two-week break in the strike during a meeting Wednesday with Mr. Iker and Mr. Cameron.
Mr. Iker said his 40,000 members would have to hold a vote to suspend job action.
Melanie Antweiler, a Vancouver mother who serves as the chair of the District Parent Advisory Council, said she doesn’t know about the likelihood of a deal, but is doubtful classes will resume next week even if a deal is reached before Tuesday.
“At this point I don’t even know how teachers would be able to get ready if they can’t get into their classrooms,” Ms. Antweiler said.
Her older son, Jakob, 7, started kindergarten three years ago, when the school system was in the midst of job action. Now her four-year-old, Simon, who was expecting to start kindergarten on Sept. 2, appears slated for the same situation.
“I don’t want every year to be like this,” said Ms. Antweiler. “I’d like the core issue to be addressed, and I’d like there to be sustainable funding for public schools.”
Ms. Antweiler said Jakob was disappointed with the way classes ended in June. He had been looking forward to end-of-the-year ceremonies such as the volunteer tea, an event that Southlands Elementary hosts every year to thank parents who helped out.
“On what ended up being his last day of Grade 2, when he was eating breakfast he said, ‘My feelings are hurting,’” said Ms. Antweiler. “It’s not the way he wanted it to end.”