Smooth start to school year but strike looms

Sderot students 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Sderot students 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The school year got off to a smooth start for more than 1.8 million Israeli schoolchildren on Sunday, but high school and junior-high teachers are threatening to strike next week if their demands for higher salaries and increased classroom hours aren't met. The decision by the Secondary School Teachers Association to heed a court injunction against striking this week and the last-minute decision by teachers in the Arab sector to call off planned sanctions led to one of the smoothest opening days in recent years. But the quiet may not last for long. The high and junior high school teachers are threatening to strike from next week if no agreement is reached with the Treasury. The teachers are protesting both the size of their salaries - which have not seen a significant increase since 1996 - as well as the loss of classroom hours. Negotiations resumed Sunday with the aim of finalizing an agreement by Thursday similar to the deal reached with the main National Teachers' Union earlier this year. Parents in Sderot also cancelled plans for a strike at the last minute after receiving promises of better protection for classrooms and improved bomb shelters close to educational facilities. Prime Minster Ehud Olmert marked the opening of the school year with a tour of the "Achva" school in Ramle, where he took time to praise education reforms and the fortification of Sderot's schools. "We will build 13 more schools in Sderot," Olmert pledged. "Today I can say that all of Sderot's schools, save, maybe, one tiny wing, are reinforced in accordance with the Home Front's guidelines." In an attempt to soothe the nerves of Sderot parents, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter arrived at a school in the city on Sunday morning sporting a school T-shirt. "Like the parents, I too would send my children to study in the city's schools," he said. "It is a peril-laden decision, and yet the right one. I am truly of the opinion that under the current circumstances the Defense and Education ministries did all they could in order to ensure that the children receive optimal protection." Two Kassam rockets fired from Gaza landed near Sderot on Sunday morning. No one was wounded and no damage was reported. More than 200 soldiers were dispatched to Sderot to accompany children to school and to drill the students in emergency procedures in the event of a rocket attack. The IDF made a concerted effort on Sunday to prevent the firing of Kassam rockets into Sderot on the first day of school. Attack helicopters hovered over Gaza throughout the day and the IDF struck at a number of launchers in northern Gaza. In the afternoon, the Israeli Air Force fired a missile at a car in the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis lightly wounding three Islamic Jihad terrorists. The attack came several hours after two Kassam rockets were fired at Israel from the northern Gaza Strip. The rockets struck an open area in the Negev, and did not cause any damage or injury. First grade students at the "Tali" school in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood were received by President Shimon Peres, who told them, "I am very excited today because I too am in first grade at the president's office." "The state of Israel loves you, first graders," Peres said. "Take care of yourselves; the country needs you because a good head is all Israel has." Secondary school teachers' representatives in the Arab sector canceled their planned strike after the Education Ministry agreed to set up four committees to deal with problems in the Arab sector. However, disruptions were reported at a number of Arab schools as teachers protested overcrowding, a failure to build new classrooms, inadequate safety and lack of equipment. Education Ministry employees also carried out sanctions to protest the failure to reach an agreement on the details of a new pay hike. The sanctions meant the Education Ministry's new computer system was temporarily out of action. The workers are also delaying the sending of matriculation exam results. School security guards also searched some pupils' bags for dangerous items, after receiving permission from police to do so following a particularly serious summer of youth violence. The guards are allowed to conduct searches at the entrance of the school, but only in the presence of a teacher. Education Ministry Deputy Director-General Lea Rosenberg said that this year would see a reorganization of how teachers are assigned to classes, a change she called the first major reform in Israeli schools since 1968. She was not perturbed by the fact that most of the organizational reforms proposed by the Dora commission a few years ago have been shelved. "Although the number of kids in a classroom is important, it is much more important to have a good teacher - a teacher who stays the entire day and is there for everybody," Rosenberg explained. She said that under the new changes being introduced teachers would have enough time to talk to the children, to assess their difficulties and understand what needs to be done to rectify problems. "This is a different kind of reform," Rosenberg said, "because it deals with the time teachers will be able to spend with children in the classroom." Yaakov Katz contributed to this article.