Labour unrest clouds start of new school year

Superintendent confirms contingency plan for Penticton and Summerland schools, and police confirm they'll be out in full force too

School is back in session under a cloud of labour unrest.

And as kids head back for their first full day of classes today, the union that represents school support staff resumes negotiations with the B.C. government.

In August, the Canadian Union of Public Employees warned parents its members, who are without a contract, had taken an affirmative strike vote and were contemplating a walk-out later this month.

Teachers, who will not cross a CUPE picket line, are also without a contract. Their union is scheduled to restart talks with the government in October.

The Okanagan Skaha School District is prepared for any eventuality.

“We’ve got a draft of a plan in and, essentially, if teachers refuse to cross a picket line, it will be pretty hard to have schools open, because you can’t have one principal supervising 300 kids,” explained superintendent Wendy Hyer.

“You have to think of the safety of the students. That would be the worst-case scenario, and we’ll work hard to avert that situation, but we do have a plan in place if that happens.”

Hyer said specifics of that plan will be communicated to parents if job action becomes imminent.

CUPE, which represents 27,000 B.C. school support staff, said it walked away from the bargaining table last month because of the government negotiator’s apparent inability to discuss wage increases.

Last winter, school boards refused the education minister’s request to draw up savings plans to fund possible pay hikes, but appear to have relented.

Trustee Ginny Manning, who chairs the board of the Okanagan Skaha School District, confirmed via email, “We have been asked to create a savings plan and staff are looking at it,” but said she was unable to comment further.

The district expects 5,700 students in regular schools for the start of the year, down from the 5,843 it estimated for the start of the 2012-13 session.

Province-wide, enrolment in public schools is expected to dip to 525,692 students, down  5,824 from the end of the last school year.

To help protect those students, police have promised they’ll be out in full force to make sure drivers are respecting 30 km/h speed limits in school zones.

“It’s not only speed that is an issue in the school zones,” noted Penticton RCMP Const. Ted Manchulenko.

“We continue to see parking violations, usually (by) parents, that disobey the posted parking and no-stopping areas.

“We try to educate the motoring public relating to these zones that are posted for line-of-sight issues that relate to safety of the crosswalks, exits to driveways and school bus operation, and yet we continue to have motorists stopping in these areas affecting the safety of all using the areas.”

Fines for speeding in school and playground zones start at $196. Failing to yield for a pedestrian carries a $167 penalty.