Victoria agrees to mediation in teachers' dispute, wants schools to open Sept. 2

The province is proposing a two-week truce with striking teachers to at least allow B.C. schools to reopen as scheduled next week while a mediated settlement is pursued.

And that's great news, according to Richmond Board of Education Chair Donna Sargent, who said it's her information that the union was meeting Wednesday night to discuss how to proceed.

"I'm more optimistic than I was. They need to get in the classroom on Sept. 2," Sargent said of students. "If this is the way that can happen, then that's a good thing."

Sargent said mediation is something local trustees have been advocating for.

"It's good news a mediator is interested and wants to take this on."

The idea of a cooling-off period allowing classes to start while mediated talks proceed was put to B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker by Education Minister Peter Fassbender and government negotiator Peter Cameron.

There was no deal between the two sides but Cameron said he felt progress was made in the 90-minute meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Iker called for mediation to begin Thursday but indicated he needed union membership approval to halt picketing.

While there were teachers picketing outside Walter Lee Elementary Wednesday morning, they were gone by lunch time, and other local schools were free of pickets.

The B.C. Public School Employers Association would also pledge to suspend lockout activity.

“Government has no plan to legislate an end to this dispute and we are not asking either the BCTF or BCPSEA to give up their right to strike or lockout," Fassbender said. "We are just asking them to voluntarily stand down and let classes start while the parties are in mediation."

Veteran mediator Vince Ready has been monitoring the talks and has indicated he is prepared to step in if he decides the two sides have come close enough to put a deal in reach.

In an open letter to parents on Aug. 22, local trustees urged both sides to reach a settlement by the end of the month.

"As an active member of the British Columbia School Trustees Association, our board strongly supports its back to school action plan which calls on (BC Public School Employers Association) and the (BC Teachers Federation) to reach a settlement by Aug. 31, 2014."

"We are actively advocating for a negotiated resolution to the dispute in time for school start-up."

Fassbender's proposal also calls on the union to set aside potential grievances arising from the last court ruling, now under appeal by the province.

“The demand on potential grievances is nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year. This matter is before the courts and will be addressed through the appeals process," Fassbender said.

“I’m not asking the BCTF to do anything prejudicial to their court case, but setting this issue aside as the appeals process takes place gives mediation a chance to succeed."

Fassbender said setting aside the grievances isn't a precondition for mediation but said he believed doing so would allow focused talks on the key issues: wages and class size and composition.

“My hope is that it would move the parties into a zone where mediator Vince Ready sees an opportunity to start productive mediation."

He said the government side is ready to begin mediated talks as soon as Ready gives a green light.

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