Start of school year 'big success'

Olmert to pupils in North: 'I can see you know how to cope.'

The first day of the 5767 school year passed relatively smoothly, leading some to wonder if government agencies and ordinary Israelis were too exhausted after a hot, traumatic summer to let financial and other disagreements lead to another national crisis. "Overall, [the start of the school year] was a big success," said MK Michael Melchior (Kadima), chairman of the Knesset Education Committee, while on a tour of Tiberias schools as they opened their gates for the first time this year Sunday morning. "Everyone understood that after this crazy period, we have to go back to routine," he added. Two significant crises threatened the start of the school year, but were resolved at the last minute by generous compromises not usually seen. Parents withdrew their threats of strikes when the Education and Internal Security ministries each allotted half of the NIS 30 million needed to fund security in some 700 schools and kindergartens throughout the country, which were left wholly defenseless by budget shortfalls and police manpower reallocations. A second crisis, over the firing of 550 secondary school teachers and the drastic cutting of teaching hours for some 1,550 others, was averted through compromise reached verbally on Friday between the Education Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Secondary School Teachers Association. According to the agreement, some 160 retirement pensions were added to the 220 slots already allotted by the Finance Ministry for the teachers being fired. In addition, the Education Ministry restored most of the teaching hours cut, both adding to the hours of those who lost them and restoring the jobs of those teachers who were fired without a guaranteed retirement pension. While most of Israel's 1.7 million schoolchildren went to school on Sunday, some 18,000 students in 43 schools stayed home. In several Sderot schools and the nearby Sha'ar Hanegev Elementary School, parents kept their kids home as a protest against the delays in constructing fortified classrooms able to withstand Kassam rocket attacks. Police were operating at their second-highest readiness level throughout the day, with volunteers manning intersections and watching over the schoolchildren as they walked to school. In addition, reinforcements from the Border Police and the Border Police's elite Yasam unit were deployed throughout cities as rapid-response units for emergencies. The traditional prime ministerial school visit marking the opening of the academic year took place in the North this year. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday visited the elementary school in Moshav Meona that was once attended by kidnapped soldier Sgt. Gilad Shalit, and a high school in the Katyusha-scarred town of Ma'alot-Tarshiha. "Education is the state's most important resource," Olmert told students in Moshav Meona. Accompanied by Education Minister Yuli Tamir, he said: "It is security, it is economics, it is culture, and it is what will move us forward." Addressing the war in the North, and the fact that many of the children there were forced to spend part of their summer vacation in bomb shelters, Olmert said: "The opening of this school year in this area has special significance. We have had a difficult summer in the North. I look in the eyes of all the children, and I can see you know how to cope. I am not taking lightly what you went through, but I appreciate your will, determination, optimism and your love for this charming place where you live." Olmert also spoke about his own first day in school in a talk with new first-graders. "I will tell you a secret," he said. "I remember the first day I came to first grade, when I was your age. I wasn't as nice, I wasn't as smart, and didn't know as many things as you, even before you start your studies." After the visit, Olmert told reporters that "everyone raised their hands when I asked who already knew how to work with a computer." The children at the school presented the prime minister with a kite with Shalit's picture on it, and asked him to do everything possible to bring the kidnapped soldier home. Olmert's visit to Moshav Meona was followed by a visit to the ORT High School in Ma'alot-Tarshiha. He was met at both places by protesters demanding a state commission of inquiry into the war in Lebanon. Olmert seemed to have alluded to this when he told the students that "sometimes there are doubts about our abilities, especially when we listen to the voices of lament. But when the clouds that are unnecessarily seeded over our lives are dispersed, we encounter this strength of a bursting creative energy and then you say, 'No one can stop us.'" Ma'alot-Tarshiha Mayor Shlomo Buhbut, the chairman of the forum of confrontation line communities, told the students that the forum was opposed to a state commission of inquiry, not because the mayors were afraid of it, but because it would harm the rehabilitation of the Galilee. "We now need the government fighting for us to rehabilitate the North," he said. "We don't need the government leadership busy running with lawyers from one committee to the next."