VICTORIA - As families grow anxious about the possibility of British Columbia's public school teachers' strike drifting into September, the provincial government is offering up a $40 a day subsidy for children under 13.
Finance Minister Mike de Jong said Thursday that parents will be invited to apply online to receive the funding for the duration of the labour dispute, should the strike continue into the new school year.
More than 40,000 teachers launched a full-scale strike about two weeks before school was set to end in June, following three weeks of rotating strikes and other job action. The government locked out teachers in the last days of the term and then summer school was cancelled.
Although summer school was made essential for those students in grades 10 to 12 who failed a course.
Little progress has been made in resolving the conflict over the summer and no talks are scheduled.
De Jong said approximately 300,000 students would be eligible to collect the subsidy, which would be funded from the $12 million the government saves daily in teachers' salaries once the new school year begins.
"We have time here. We have five weeks. And that's why I ... emphasize this is a contingency that we want people to know about as early as possible so that as we move through August they can plan accordingly," he told reporters in Victoria. "But I'll be the first to tell you I hope it's a contingency we don't have to rely on."
Families will be expected to use the subsidy to purchase tutoring for their children, explore other educational opportunities or pay for day care, de Jong said. However, cheques would likely not be issued until October and the program will not be retroactive to cover days when teachers were off the job in June.
Teachers' union president Jim Iker responded to the announcement by calling the plan a "government scheme to strip funding from B.C. students."
He said the proposal would not improve class sizes, increase support for children with special needs, or provide them with more one-on-one time.
"It is my hope that the government will redirect its energies into reaching an agreement with B.C. teachers through mediation this summer," Iker said in a written statement.
He said B.C. Teachers' Federation's bargaining team has been "in regular contact" with the employer during the past three weeks. De Jong said he's hoping the parties will sit down again in an attempt to reach a deal as early as next week.
De Jong repeated a message the government has made throughout the dispute that they are not considering legislating teachers back to work.
"I think the pressure will build in August," he said. "All the more reason for the parties to sit down and hammer out an agreement."
Iker said the union hopes to reach a settlement so schools can open in September as scheduled.
The union's last proposal sought a wage hike and two multimillion-dollar funds to hire more teachers and resolve grievances, which the government has labelled as benefits.
The province has repeatedly said the proposal is outside its "affordability zone" and far beyond what other public-sector workers have received.
The subsidy announcement came on the same day that the body representing B.C.'s school trustees made a public appeal to both parties to solve the conflict.
The British Columbia School Trustees Association released what it calls a "Back to School Action Plan," urging the union to decrease the amount of funds its asking for in the additional hiring and grievance funds.
It also encourages the government to put all the savings accrued from the dispute into a separate fund that would go towards improving classroom conditions.
"Students have been the ones that have been most impacted," said president Teresa Rezansoff.
"Students would get the most benefits by taking those savings from the strike-lockout and putting it into the Learning Improvement Fund where they will directly benefit."