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Approaching school year adds pressure for deal with B.C. teachers

Striking B.C. teachers at the Vancouver Art Gallery during a noon time rally June 16, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Talks between B.C. teachers and the government's negotiator are expected to resume later this week following a formal meeting last Friday that broke more than a month of silence. Informal conversations between the chief negotiators for both sides took place over the summer, according to a government spokesman, and on "a few occasions" those chats were helped along by Justice Stephen Kelleher of the B.C. Supreme Court.

Justice Kelleher had been accepted as a mediator by both parties in early July; however, he declined to mediate the situation after speaking with the government and union's negotiators at the start of the summer, saying the two sides were too far apart.

Still, neither side would comment on whether the meetings with Justice Kelleher were an indication of some movement in the dispute, which cancelled the last two weeks of classes in the spring and now threatens the start of the new school year on Sept. 2.

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(Read up on the issues and history of the education labour dispute with our explainer Q&A.)

"Everyone here is feeling that this is getting down to a crunch. We want mediation, but we aren't there yet," an official with the teachers' federation said.

BCTF president Jim Iker has said in the past that the province had called for a number of "unworkable preconditions" related to the union's wage proposals before agreeing to mediation.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender said he was optimistic last week before Friday's negotiating session between the bargaining teams. The minister vowed that the government was bringing "additional concepts" to the table in August. The statement seemed to come in reply to the BCTF's promise to advance "creative ideas."

While Teresa Rezansoff says she's encouraged by talks with people from the union and government, the president of the B.C. School Trustees Association said on Monday that parents would start getting nervous "in the next 10 days" unless they hear news.

"We're concerned about where we are at, but the fact that there has been continuous communication between [the government] and the BCTF is a hopeful sign," Ms. Rezansoff said. "We need to take that as a positive."

The teachers' union and government have had a rocky relationship for 20 years, reaching only one agreement in that time without legislation. But much of the current conflict dates to January, when a court ruled that the Liberal government's removal of some rights held by the teachers in 2002 was unconstitutional. Since then, teachers have called for sizeable concessions from the province to restore class sizes and composition to levels closer to what they were in 2002.

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In a proposal made by the BCTF on June 17, the union called for a $5,000 signing bonus and an 8-per-cent salary increase by July, 2018. The union also called for the government to start two funds to deal with the January court decision. One fund, estimated by the union at $225-million, would help reinstate some of the 3,500 teaching positions the BCTF says have been lost due to cuts.

The government has so far refused to dip into the larger-than-expected $353-million surplus announced in mid-July.

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