San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Striking High School Teachers Reach Accord

Thousands of high school students will return to school after the Education Ministry and union leaders negotiated an end to a 25-day strike that has closed classrooms across the nation.

The ministry and the High School Teachers’ Association (APSE) agreed on measures to raise teacher salaries, fix payment problems and reduce class size during a 10-hour meeting that lasted until 2 a.m. yesterday.

APSE called off the strike yesterday after 23 of the union’s 28 regional groups accepted the accord.

The strike, which began March 31, has affected most rural schools, bringing some to a standstill. Ministry press officer Jesus Mora said it has caused more harm than any teachers’ strike since 1995, when the education sector was paralyzed for a month.

APSE president Beatriz Ferreto said 19,000 high school teachers struck, while Mora puts the number at 6,000.

The main sticking point was salary. An entry-level high school teacher with a university degree who spends 27 hours a week teaching – plus more time preparing – makes about $725 a month, according to figures from the ministry.

Teachers were excluded from a January salary hike of 6% to 18% for about 7,000 government professionals. The ministry agreed to give teachers a similar raise in an April 8 meeting with other unions, including the 45,000-member National Association of Educators (ANDE).

But the ministry did not set a date for the raise, which would depend on “budgetary availability.”

ANDE, which did not join the strike, accepted these conditions, but APSE vied for more. Under Thursday’s agreement, teachers will receive a salary increase beginning July 2008.

A committee with representatives from the Finance Ministry, the Civil Service, the Education Ministry, and the teachers’ unions will define amounts based on the January raise for other public officials.

By June, the ministry will settle debts with teachers who have done extra work. While classes now typically have 30 to 40 students, the ministry will work to reduce class size to 25 when possible.

A new window in the ministry’s human resources department will attend to union concerns.

The ministry also promised not to dock strikers’ pay, as it had threatened, if teachers make up for missed work.

Walter Quesada, director of UnescoHigh School in the southern zone canton of Pérez Zeledón, has been rooting for an end to the strike. About 60 of the school’s 75 teachers struck and most of the 1,670 students stayed home for three weeks. Anxious parents called all day to ask when classes would resume.

The school must now rearrange the curriculum. Students were in the middle of exams when the strike started, and a second set of tests was scheduled for mid-May.

“I respect the movement,” Quesada said. “(But) like any director, I was waiting for the strike to end on good terms…so that this uncertainty would end and things could return to normal.”

APSE’s bases rejected an initial agreement drafted April 15 by the ministry and the union’s leaders. The union then rejected a second proposal that Education Minister Leonardo Garnier presented Monday.

On Wednesday, some 2,000 teachers with banners and red paper APSE hats protested outside the Casa Presidencial in Zapote in a call for further concessions.

“These innocent children who aren’t receiving classes should not have to suffer because of APSE’s intransigence,” President Oscar Arias said during a press conference as teachers chanted.

But Roger Leiton, a math teacher who marched, said teachers should be treated the same as other state professionals. Leiton’s $600 monthly salary is just enough to cover rent, food and rising gas costs, he said.

“I’m not wasteful, and I don’t drink, and I barely make ends meet,” he said.


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