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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised the recent wage pact between the state and the main union for elementary school teachers, as the school year got off to a generally smooth start Sunday.

Speaking during a visit to schools in Ramle and Lod, Olmert said the collective bargaining agreement represents "a new horizon for teachers and students. The fact that new teachers will no longer need to receive state income support allowances is a dramatic step forward."

Dampening the official high spirits, however, was a demonstration by members of the Association of Secondary School Teachers outside the National Labor Court in Jerusalem, protesting the court injunction that put them in the classrooms rather than on the picket line Sunday.

Meanwhile, parent-teacher associations prevented 11 classrooms and schools around the country from opening Sunday, the Education Ministry said, for reasons including overcrowding, safety and sanitation issues, opposition to the ministry's appointment of a new principal and a demand that students considered violent be expelled.

There are 1,445,000 students enrolled in first through 12th grade around the country, in addition to about 364,000 children in public kindergartens.

"Education is at the top of our agenda, along with security and combating societal ills," Olmert said during a visit to the Ahva School in Ramle. "The importance we place in the school system is expressed through our actions and the resources we devote to it."

According to Education Ministry officials, the final version of the new union contract will be made public within several days, to be followed immediately by a campaign to sign up every teacher interested in the planned school reform program. The reform plan involves increasing teacher pay as well as classroom hours.

Regarding the reinforcement of Sderot schools against Qassam rockets, Olmert said that 13 new educational institutions are in the pipeline for the city.

"All the schools in Sderot, with the possible exception of a small wing, have been reinforced in keeping with the Home Front Command's professional directives," Olmert said. "We will do everything possible, within the necessary balance and responsibility, to protect children, parents and teachers everywhere, in particular in Sderot and the communities surrounding Gaza."

Regarding the high-school teachers' union, which has not yet reached an agreement with the state, Olmert said its elementary-school counterpart "displayed wisdom and responsibility [in signing the agreement], so that we can start the school year with a sense of new direction."