Gov't: Cost of 35-student Classes Would Be NIS 3B

Yesterday's meeting between treasury and Education Ministry officials, on one hand, and teachers union officials, on the other, ended without success, but according to government sources involved in the negotiations, the teachers will soon be given two options to choose from: either focusing on reducing class sizes or working to restore the classroom hours that have been cut over the past several years.

The proposal is based on the assumption that an agreement in principle has already been reached over the teachers' third demand, a 10-percent salary increase.

"The way to break through the negotiations' impasse is by deciding which goal to achieve," a source said. According to figures compiled recently by the Education Ministry, the cost of reducing class size from 40 to 35 students will exceed NIS 3 billion.

Officials in the Secondary School Teachers Association said in response to the report that they will not back down until all three of their principal demands are met. "The treasury still doesn't understand what our fight is about," union head Ran Erez said yesterday. The strike enters its 35th day today.

Yesterday's meeting was attended by Education Minister Yuli Tamir, senior treasury officials and Erez, as well as Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, acting as mediator. The 90-minute meeting ended badly, with government officials accusing Erez of refusing to discuss added work hours for the teachers in exchange for their wage hike. "Erez apparently still hasn't calmed down from last night's rally and he doesn't want to conduct real negotiations," one source said.

"The treasury isn't willing to discuss the reforms in secondary education, insisting on talking only about wages - and having us return to teach in crowded classrooms and with too few instructional hours," Erez countered. He said that an 8.5-percent wage increase was agreed on previously, but issues remained concerning the timing of the raise as well as the extra hours the teachers would have to work. "That's why we offered to put it aside and go forward with talks on reducing class size. The treasury refused on the grounds that the demand could not be included in a collective bargaining agreement. We said O.K., so let's discuss the return of [classroom] hours - but we were faced with rejection on that, too," Erez said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday called on the striking teachers to resume negotiations and end their strike. "I urge the teachers union to go back to the negotiating table and call off all the drama," Olmert said at the inauguration of a new technology park in Be'er Sheva.

"With all due respect, there is no reason why the union head should meet with the prime minister in person," Olmert added. "The finance and education ministers have my full backing to carry out the negotiations and reach an agreement. The teachers must take part in our plan to reform the education system and make it better. The strike is uncalled for."