Schools reopen as last-minute talks aim to clinch deal

Most teachers expected to obey court order to end 65-day strike.

Confusion gripped the education system Wednesday night as "feverish" negotiations continued in an effort to end the 65-day secondary school teachers' strike ahead of the Thursday morning activation of court injunctions ordering the teachers back to work. While Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO) officials were optimistic about the talks, officials from other parties, including the Education Ministry, said the basic dispute over reforming the working conditions of teachers would likely not be resolved by Thursday morning. The negotiations were taking place at the highest level, according to government officials, who noted that for more than eight hours of marathon negotiations on Wednesday, only Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On, SSTO chairman Ran Erez and an SSTO adviser were in the room. Erez stepped out of the negotiations on Wednesday evening to tell teachers that "some progress has been achieved" on reducing class sizes and adding teaching hours, but a union representative refused to elaborate. The National Parents' Leadership, an umbrella organization for the various parents' groups, called on all pupils to return to classes on Thursday and for all sides to obey court rulings. The negotiations came after Erez had stormed angrily out of a late Tuesday meeting that was widely expected to end the strike, saying the Finance Ministry had changed the agreement reached with the union. Thursday marks the deadline when National Labor Court injunctions issued last week will go into effect, ordering the SSTO to end the strike of some 40,000 secondary school teachers nationwide. However, hundreds of teachers, particularly activists in the union's local branches, have vowed to defy the court order and continue the strike. "The hour of judgment has arrived," read an e-mail circulated among teachers Wednesday night advocating defiance. "The government ministries and those who stand at their head have brought us to this dilemma, and to the decision that is among the most difficult we have taken in our years in the education system." According to the letter's writers, in defying the labor court, "We're not breaking the rules of the democratic game, but rather using an opening offered us by the court" - a reference to the fact that the injunctions are against the union leadership, not against individual teachers, who would face disciplinary hearings rather than contempt of court charges if they disobeyed the order. "We are willing to bear the responsibility for our actions out of a willingness and a desire to teach our students about social activism," the letter added. According to the letter, some 200 schools will not be opening on Thursday, as part of the teachers' continuing "just struggle for the future of public education in Israel." Another activist Web site listed 99 schools as planning to keep their doors closed on Thursday morning. Four rallies will be held "at the first bell" on Thursday morning: at 8 a.m. in Haifa in front of the city's government offices, and in Tel Aviv outside the Education Ministry building, at 9 in Beersheba in front of the municipality, and at 8 in Jerusalem outside the central Education Ministry building on Rehov Hanevi'im. Teachers plan to stand quietly at the demonstrations and to wear black ribbons. Despite the rhetoric, it was unclear Wednesday how many teachers planned to stay home Thursday, with one teacher who spoke with The Jerusalem Post predicting that "99 percent will be coming to class." "I think most will return," agreed Be'er Tuvia Regional School principal Aryeh Barnea, "mainly because the teachers will be worried that the kids will be unsupervised." But "whatever happens in the negotiations," added a pessimistic Barnea, "the sides will live under the illusion that they fixed something. This is all about a change in the educational administration, not in the education itself. When you have 30,000 kids dropping out of school before high school, mostly in the 9th and 10th grades, and kids who don't have money for books and trips, so their principals have to go overseas to raise money, nobody is seriously talking about what needs to be fixed. We're institutions of study, not of real learning. The problem is that we're giving information and skills, but public education is far from being values education."