It was a day when they should have been stocking their new desks with duo tangs and pencil crayons, meeting their new teachers and showing off new shoes to their friends.
Instead, five young girls spent their “first day of school” on Tuesday sitting in a circle in front of the door to Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows MLA Doug Bing’s office, playing with toy horses.
Their parents were there with homemade signs, protesting the labour deadlock between the provincial government and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation that cut short the last school year, and continues to pare down another .
“We’re very, very frustrated – extremely frustrated,” said Karen Learmonth, who was part of the group of about 12 adults and an equal number of students at the rally.
Parents are frustrated with the government, she added, and the fact members won’t even talk to them.
“They shut the doors, and locked us out,” she said of MLA office staff.
“We expected we’d be able to voice our concerns, talk about some of the issues and ask some questions. Now I’m really upset that they’re not here. Now I’m really angry.”
The group met online, on a B.C. Parent Support Group website, and arranged the rally.
“I think what they’re trying to do is break the union – they’re not interested in negotiating at all,” said Learmonth. “They’re more interested in saving money.”
She added that the real issue for her is class size and composition.
“I want my kid, who has special needs, to be taken care of. And I see there’s less and less support for those teachers to help those kids.”
Ruth Scher has children attending at Hammond and Pitt Meadows elementary, and she is also angry at the government.
“It’s unprecedented. I can’t believe that they’re doing this to our kids,” said Scher.
“We’ve seen so much time gone by without our kids learning. June was a complete wasted month – so much so that I was forced to home school my kids during the summer.”
“And they want to give us $40 for glorified babysitting? I don’t want my kids babysat. I want them in school. Learning.”
She was referring to the funding government has made available to parents who need to make daycare arrangements as the teachers’ strike continues.
She said the parents didn’t like being locked out of Bing’s office.
“There’s extreme disappointment that we can’t even get in to talk to our MLA, representing the government, to talk to them about our concerns about this labour dispute, and how we feel the government is prolonging it unnecessarily,” she added. “We tried to get in even to make an appointment, and the secretary had the doors locked.
“So much for democracy when the doors of your MLA are locked.”
Theresa Milne, a Laityview elementary Grade 7 student, isn’t looking forward to compacting the curriculum, or doing the school work in a shorter time frame. She said the June strike cost her class field trips to Cultus Lake and the Planetarium, as well as missed classroom time. She showed up Tuesday because she wants to get back to school, she said.
“I don’t think we’ll be going back to school this week. Maybe next week – let’s hope,” she said.
Veteran mediator Vince Ready walked away from the talks on Saturday, saying the two sides were at an impasse, and too far apart on wages and benefits.
B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker said the two sides are just one per cent apart on wages. The government offer is seven per cent over six years, while the union wants eight per cent over five.
But Education Minister Peter Fassbender said the BCTF demand is still nearly twice what other public sector unions have settled for once benefit demands are included.
The province has also taken a $1,200 signing bonus off the table, while the union still wants $5,000, which makes up a big chunk of what the government says is a $300-million gulf between the positions,
Parents have begun signing up for a government offer of $40 per child under age 13 for each day schools are closed. The lump sum payments are to come after the strike ends and consume all the $12 million a day in strike savings the government will amass.
Whatever issues the government and teachers union are hashing out, it all comes back to those five girls sitting on the sidewalk, said Learmonth.
“They’re playing My Little Pony and making signs. What kind of education is that, really”