Secondary schools across the country will not open as scheduled on September 2, Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO) head Ran Erez announced on Tuesday. "We will not allow the Finance Ministry to go on degrading teachers and we will continue to fight with all our might for an improvement in their salaries and status," Erez wrote in a letter sent to teachers on Monday. Teachers are protesting both the size of their salaries- which have not seen an increase since 1996- as well as the loss of classroom hours. Over the past decade, teachers have lost 8.5 teaching hours per student per week. According to the SSTO, students finishing 12th grade today are getting what was considered an 11th grade education six years ago. "We want the government to give back classroom hours. We want to teach in smaller classes - never 40 or more students [in a class] as, of course, we have today," Keren Shaket, spokeswoman for the SSTO told The Jerusalem Post. While the school system is constantly looking for younger teachers, Shaket charges that there is no dignified way out for older teachers seeking retirement. "You need to give the older teachers a way out. You have to give them the appropriate conditions and opportunities to retire honorably." Erez claimed that despite negotiations and numerous meetings, the Finance Ministry was nearly totally ignoring the SSTO's demands, which include a pay rise and an improvement in work conditions. Erez notified the teachers that he officially rejected the offer made by the ministry for an agreement over salaries. Due to the ministry's lack of interest in investment in education, wrote Erez in a letter addressed to teachers, he was left with no choice but to resort to a strike. "Under absolutely no circumstances do we intend to receive the cents or crumbs that the Finance Ministry is ready to toss us. There will be no negotiations because the Finance Ministry has gone on vacation", said Erez. Finance Ministry negotiators will not return from their summer vacation until the end of the month, not leaving enough time to negotiate and reach an agreement before the school year is scheduled to start. Talks came to a halt last week and there has been no contact between the SSTO and the ministry since then. The Finance Ministry rejected the teachers' call for a strike, saying there had been a misunderstanding. "It's unfortunate that because of unclear interests, the SSTO is wiling to damage the students and their studies," the Finance Ministry said in a statement. "In the [proposed] agreement, teachers would get a substantial pay raise, widened opportunities for promotion and greater administrative flexibility for school principals." It said the Treasury had allocated the SSTO more than NIS 1 billion when it agreed to a package of educational reforms, which now includes most teachers in Israel. "It is unclear to us why the SSTO decided not to participate in the educational reforms that have been accepted by some 114,000 members of other teacher unions," the ministry said.